Public servants handcuffed by unreasonable expectations of political neutrality

OTTAWA—On June 25, Blacklock’s Reporter broke a story that a prominent quasi-partisan Twitter personality, Neil Waytowich (a.k.a. “Neil Before Zod” on Twitter), was actually a former public service worker by day and anonymous Twitter political commentator and podcaster by night. Hot on the trail were MPs who quoted the public service code of conduct on political activities, paying no mind to the state of the law and workers’ rights to freedom of expression.

As we near the federal election many public service workers are surely already wondering whether they can play any part in our democratic system, beyond simply casting a hidden ballot.

According to the Public Service Employment Act, an employee can “engage in any political activity so long as it does not impair, or is not perceived as impairing, the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties in a politically impartial manner.” For its part, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a public service workers’ right to freedom of expression under section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms must be balanced against their duty of loyalty to their employer, the government of Canada. There was a time when, indeed, all public service workers were banned from political activity, a law that was found to be unconstitutional. The court ruled that the government must take into account that the need for impartiality, or its appearance, varies depending on the type of work being performed and the employee’s relative role, level, or importance in the public service.

That balancing act is the crux of this issue. Unfortunately, despite numerous decisions on the question, the Public Service Commission (PSC) continues to actively dissuade public service workers from expressing their political views and exercising their political rights outside of work, via information spread through its online tools, and education materials, as well as in their application of the legislation. Not only has this infringed on the rights of workers, it has had a chilling effect on all employees who self-police to avoid attracting the ire of the PSC. 

“Politics” is a dirty word in the federal public service, and yet it is everywhere.

We need to unpack the notion of what it means to be politically engaged, and ensure that loyalty to the employer, although an integral aspect of any employment relationship, does not override an individual’s right to express themselves, and in particular where to do so is a necessary part of expressing and protecting one’s identity.

Politics is everywhere, and everything is political. Neutrality itself is a hoax. Our experiences, our beliefs, and how we live in the world are political, and they are also politicized without our say. Dammit, even believing in climate change is political, and considered highly partisan by some.

The politics of existing are especially obvious to young people, women, Black, Indigenous, and racialized people, persons with disabilities, religious minorities, and members of LBGTQ2+ communities whose identities and existence are under constant attack in partisan and nonpartisan political spheres alike.

Even those for whom the status quo is peachy keen are engaged in a political act or belief when they uphold existing practices, or even in going about their daily life—say, by unapologetically benefiting from property rights on unceded Indigenous land. Infringements on freedom of expression may then have a disproportionate effect on members of equity-seeking groups.

Yet somehow public service workers are expected to suddenly become apolitical once those golden handcuffs are on.

Showing up at the Women’s March, attended by partisan political leaders, holding a sign with a political slogan, shouldn’t be cause for investigation or discipline. Neither should door-knocking with a political candidate as a volunteer on one’s down time. Nor writing a letter to the editor about a policy issue where one signs the letter without mention of their job in the public service. These are all legitimate and protected forms of expression. In fact, most public service workers, whose work is “completely divorced from the exercise of any discretion that could be in any manner affected by political considerations,” to use the language of the Supreme Court of Canada, would be permitted to engage in these activities based on the legal test set out by the court.

Sadly, most public service workers don’t know this.

The code of conduct and false notions of the “political” are weaponized to silence public service workers, and chill freedom of expression. This has never been easier to do than with social media, where a comment or an Instagram photo can turn into a complaint very quickly.

Why then all the fear-mongering from the PSC to NDP and Conservative MPs alike?

To completely disregard workers’ fundamental right to freedom of expression in favour of a model of subservience to their employer is an injury to the dignity of workers who keep our society running everyday—from the guarding our coasts, inspecting our food, issuing our employment insurance, preserving our parks, the list goes on—and all in the face of their own pay issues and workplace struggles.

Amy Kishek co-hosts the Bad+Bitchy podcast.

The Hill Times