The Government is now in a caretaker period. Until the new Government is sworn in, government operations are conducted in accordance with conventions known as the ‘Caretaker Conventions’. The conventions complement the duty of Australian Public Service (APS) employees to remain impartial and apolitical.
Employees are advised to become familiar with the Guidance on Caretaker Conventions on the caretaker conventions available on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
What are the personal responsibilities of public servants during the caretaker period?
The relationship between the Government and the APS is subject to particular scrutiny around election times. The conventions recognise that during an election campaign there is a particular responsibility on public servants to ensure that the public service remains, and is seen to remain, impartial and apolitical.
You should pay particular attention during the caretaker period to your words and actions and what they may be seen to be endorsing.
The APS Code of Conduct provides that APS employees have a responsibility to ‘at all times’ behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and the integrity and good reputation of their agency and the APS. These obligations continue to apply when you leave the office. Your comments and actions after hours can cause the public to question your ability to remain impartial and apolitical, and can bring your agency or the APS into disrepute.
Can I take part in the campaign for a particular political party?
It is quite acceptable for APS employees to take part in political activities as private citizens and as part of normal community affairs – unless the employee works for the Australian Electoral Commission in which case special considerations apply.
Employees, other than AEC employees, should ensure that it is clear they are campaigning as a private citizen. While campaigning, employees should not, for example, wear official uniforms that identify them as an employee of a public service agency. Similarly, wearing or displaying political material while working is generally inappropriate.
Participating in political activities can raise perceptions of conflicts of interest. APS employees are required to take reasonable steps to avoid real or apparent conflicts of interest under the APS Code of Conduct. If employees wish to take a significant role in a political campaign they should discuss the matter with their manager to identify any potential problems and how they might be addressed.
Can I use office resources, such as photocopiers, phones and emails in the campaign?
No. Commonwealth resources should not be used for party political purposes. This is to ensure that agency resources are not used to support or advantage any particular political party. This aligns with obligations under the APS Code of Conduct to use Commonwealth resources in a proper manner and for a proper purpose.
Can I engage in political activity in work time?
No. Your paid work time is considered to be a Commonwealth resource. APS employees should refrain from using Commonwealth resources (including time), or their positions, to support particular issues or for party political purposes.
While this links directly to the requirement to use Commonwealth resources for a proper purpose, it also underpins the public’s expectations of an apolitical APS.
Can I discuss the election campaign at work?
Yes, within limits.
APS employees should remember to treat everyone with respect in connection with APS employment. This includes being respectful of others’ opinions and having regard for the need to maintain harmonious workplace relationships.
APS employees should not have conversations in the workplace that can be overheard by members of the public which, for example, advocate for or criticise a particular party.
Can I participate in discussions about the election on social media?
Yes, within limits.
Similar principles apply in the caretaker period to those that operate generally. Employees should be sure that any comments they make on social media do not reasonably call into question their impartiality. This includes ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ material posted by other users, which will often be seen as an endorsement of the views expressed in those posts.
In general, APS employees must not engage in social media activity that may lead a reasonable person to conclude that they cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally.
More information is available in the Australian Public Service Commission’s social media guidance.
Further information about the responsibilities of public servants during election campaigns is available in the Australian Public Service Commission guide: APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice or by contacting the Ethics Advisory Service on 02 6202 3737 or ethics [at] apsc.gov.au.