Are public servants allowed to be politically active? What constitutes political activity? How are different kinds of public servants restricted or allowed to be politically active?
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld public servants’ right to engage in political activities. The ruling states that banning public servants from engaging in political activities is an infringement on the Charter right to freedom of expression.
Public servants, nonetheless, often have specific codes of conduct with their employers or as part of their contracts.
Various legislation and regulation governing the conduct of public servants in NL defines political activity as what is more correctly called partisanship – i.e. being involved with an established political party. See, for example, the definition of political activity for those employed in the bureaucracy on the provincial government’s human resources website.
This same definition of political activity as partisanship is broadly applied to anyone considered to be a public office holder: i.e. anyone who makes a living from monies from the public purse as overseen by the Auditor General, such as police, teachers, nurses, publicly owned corporations, anyone whose employment is governed by a collective agreement with the government.
Some Acts and Contracts
Restrictions on political activity are quite explicitly stated in some contracts and legislation governing public servants, but quite vague for others.
The RNC Act (1992), for example, clearly says that “a police officer shall not engage in political activity.” Assuming we understand political activity as partisanship, this means no police officers can publicly express support for a politician or political party.
For some public servants, like teachers, restrictions on political activity are not so clearly stated, and may generally fall under conflict of interest: i.e. if the expression of political views compromises the public servant’s ability to carry out their job.
Research into restrictions on political activity of public servants in Canada has beenongoing for a number of decades and has generally shown a trend toward increasing regulation, even as the definition of political activity has remained vague and outmoded, and even as the Supreme Court ruling has not been overturned.
Faculty of Memorial University, though public servants, are an interesting counterpoint to regulation of political activity. Even though it is a public institution, the Memorial University Act specifies that the institution’s autonomy be preserved and that “the university is not an Agency of the Crown.” This exemption compliments the principle of academic freedom, which according to the MUN Faculty Association collective agreement “does not require neutrality.”
Overall, restrictions on political activity of public servants in NL are not uniform, with some public servants having explicit restrictions (like police), some having implicit restrictions (like teachers), and some having essentially no restrictions (academics).
But the function of the murkiness of definition arguably has the effect of putting a chill on any sort of overt political expression by anyone paid from the public purse. And the effects of this chill extend beyond partisan politics. For example, even though there are many ways to be politically active beyond only partisanship, such as participating in grassroots civil society groups and activism, public servants are likely to be hesitant for fear of being in any sort of conflict of interest.
Such vagueness is of course highly functional for governments because it creates a sector of society that is beholden to, and silenced by, institutions of political power. Moreover, this is also functional for reinforcing the false distinction between politics and everyday life, since regardless of where someone works, or if they work at all, the fact that people exist in communities and interact with others makes life political to begin with.
In this way, the current paradigm for political activity of public servants in NL (and in Canada more broadly speaking) is inherently contradictory, but such contradiction constitutes the political paradigm.
That’s why the question of whether public servants should or should not be politically active is at once totally irrelevant and fundamentally important.