Today’s correspondent noted that a candidate for a NSW seat in the forthcoming federal election:
… is using an add on prime TV with NSWRFS volunteers in uniform giving the impression that people need to support him and to vote for him at the federal election. The add appears as though the NSWRFS is providing advice for people to vote for the National Party.
My question is should the NSWRFS be sowing political support in an election??.
It’s almost too late to answer this given the election is next weekend but here we go.
Given the Federal election has been announced, the federal government is in caretaker mode and caretaker conventions apply – see Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Guidance on Caretaker Conventions (2021). These guidance notes are primarily directed to the public service, rather than the candidates, but in section 7 they do talk about ‘Avoiding APS Involvement in Election Activities’. There is nothing specific about the use of photos or endorsements by government volunteers, but the guidance does stress that “The APS Values set out in the Public Service Act 1999 include the value of being ‘Impartial’, that is, “The APS is apolitical..”
The Rural Fire Service is not, however part of the Australian Public Service, it is a state agency. The state government caretaker conventions – NSW Premier and Cabinet ‘Caretaker’ Conventions And Other Pre-Election Practices 2019 General State Election – state:
Agencies should ensure that their websites and any social media pages do not contain material that could be seen to compromise the neutrality of the public service or would involve agency resources being used for electioneering or partisan political purposes. Agencies may need to review their websites and social media pages at the beginning of the caretaker period.
The difficulty in applying either of these conventions is that a) they are not specific about recruiting people like RFS volunteers and b) it is the federal government, not the state government, that is in caretaker mode so neither set of conventions is clearly applicable.
The Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (NSW) s 7 says that a core value of the NSW government sector is to ‘Provide apolitical and non-partisan advice.’ The NSW Public Service Commission’s Behaving Ethically: A Guide for NSW Government Sector Employees (2014), in the discussion on caretaker conventions says “… Departments and agencies generally should not be requested to provide policy advice during the caretaker period” but that is not relevant to the issue under discussion.
Circular PSCC 2013-03 Contesting Electionssays ‘Public sector employees are not permitted to engage in party political activities whilst on duty’. Further:
“Employees must make sure that any participation in party political activities does not conflict with their primary duty as a public employee to serve the government of the day in a politically neutral manner.”…
Public sector employees are not permitted to engage in activities of a party political nature whilst on duty. Any candidate or person intending to stand should also ensure that, when making any political comments whilst not on duty, they are not identified in any way as acting or speaking in their capacity as a public sector employee.
The NSW Public Service Commission Personnel Handbook (v 13.3, 2013), [8.10] says:
Employees must make sure that any participation in party political activities does not conflict with their primary duty as a public employee to serve the government of the day in a politically neutral manner.
This is important because of the need to maintain Ministerial and public confidence in the impartiality of the actions taken and advice given by public employees…
The RFS is part of the government service, and the volunteers are also part of the government service even if they are not employees. The RFS has similar expectations of its volunteers as its employees. The RFS Code of Conduct and Ethics (2022) says:
Outside of a member’s NSW RFS duties he or she has the right to participate in political and community activities and to pursue personal interests, provided that:
› any participation does not conflict with their duty as an member to serve the community’s interest and the government of the day in a politically neutral manner…
The RFS Social Media Policy says (at [3.1])
Members must be mindful of the information they post on public forums because it may impact on the reputation of the NSW RFS. Members must not post information on social media, which could:.. be interpreted to be of a … political nature.’
The RFS Media Policy (at [3.3]) says ‘Any member dealing with the media is to ensure to the best of their ability that any information: … is not of a political nature”.
I haven’t seen the ad in question, so I don’t know if the ad is using file footage or has volunteers, in uniform, intentionally endorsing the candidate but in either case the government service should be apolitical. Even if the rules with respect to the specific conduct – eg endorsing a candidate – have to be inferred, the clear expectation is that the government service, in this case the RFS, should not be seen to be endorsing one candidate over another in an election. RFS volunteers who can be identified as RFS volunteers (eg they are in their uniform) should take care not to suggest that the RFS has a preferred candidate.
This blog is made possible with generous financial support from the Australasian College of Paramedicine, the Australian Paramedics Association (NSW), Natural Hazards Research Australia, NSW Rural Fire Service Association and the NSW SES Volunteers Association. I am responsible for the content in this post including any errors or omissions. Any opinions expressed are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or understanding of the donors.
Same here in Qld. We (RFS volunteers) are to remain apolitical.
Treasurer used a photo of Scouts in his political advertising. It was taken down after one complained that they had not given permission for their face to be used.
For a related discussion on charities and political involvment see https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/lifesavers-and-puppies-why-are-so-many-charities-being-used-in-political-ads-20220518-p5amfd.html