Public Sector Informant: What if Israel Folau was a bureaucrat?

Public servants are no strangers to muzzles. At present, seven High Court justices have the matter of Comcare v Banerji sprawled across their (associates') desks, and will soon articulate the degree to which bureaucrats can express political opinions while upholding their obligation to be impartial. Who knows which way that judgment will fall.

Israel Folau, of course, is not a public servant. Rugby Australia sacked the footballer after he repeatedly damned "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators" to an eternity of pain. That's a lot of people (I'm in there somewhere). Casting the net further, he added people who are unclean, lascivious, hateful, angry, seditious and envious, as well as heretics, witches, murderers ... and revellers (the worst of all).

Cartoon: David Pope

Cartoon: David Pope

That is, Foleau reckons most Australians lead worthless lives that will be punished, and punished justly, forever.

What if he'd been an Australian Public Service employee? His social-media brimstone allegedly breached his rugby contract because it presented a reputational risk to the sports body. Would his wide-ranging damnations also breach the APS value of "respectful"? Would they breach the code of conduct and its requirement to "at all times behave in a way that upholds ... the integrity and good reputation of the employee's agency and the APS"?

Any strict interpretation would surely find that, yes, the comments of Israel Folau, APS level 3 Border Force officer (for argument's sake), breach the code.

Yet such a finding would also be untenable, because Folau's views, while interesting, are hardly unique in the APS. If you assume the city of Canberra is broadly representative of the bureaucracy's cultural diversity (and it's more likely to be so than is Australia), you can impute that the APS has about 10,000 scriptural literalists in its workforce. That's a conservative estimate, too, based on the 6.7 per cent of Canberrans who declared in the census that their religion is evangelical, Pentecostal or another church/belief with a strong tradition of exclusive salvation.

You can't simply sack them all for saying what they believe, even if their beliefs are pretty damn offensive to everyone else (who are going to hell). Nor is it honest to try to separate religious conviction from political beliefs, as though the two can be contained neatly without overlapping.

Israel Folau, damner of revellers, among other people. Picture: Joel Carrett

Israel Folau, damner of revellers, among other people. Picture: Joel Carrett

I asked Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott to play this game: to judge the comments of imaginary Border Force officer Folau. Unsurprisingly, his spokeswoman said the commission couldn't comment on hypotheticals.

She instead replied: "Determining whether publicly expressed views are a breach of the code of conduct is a matter of careful judgment, having regard to all the circumstances, rather than a simple formula ... [The] final determination of whether any public comment, or series of comments, made by an APS employee would be considered a breach ... would rest with the agency head."

She also said APS staff have the right to take part in public, political debate, but that right isn't unlimited. "In general, APS employees must not make public comment that may lead a reasonable person to conclude that they cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally."

In other words: it depends. And I suspect that, whatever our High Court friends say in their pending decision on Banerji, the vibe will remain just that.

There no absolute answers in this debate. But a little more tolerance from employers might help.