Canadian union leaders have accused the government of trying to stifle public servants’ use of social media for political purposes ahead of a federal election campaign, according to reports Monday.
Canada is gearing up for a federal election cycle that is set to pit the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper against opposition parties. Polls indicate that Conservatives are lagging behind the opposition New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party.
Several memos released by the government such as the one recently sent to Justice Department employees could have a chilling effect on their use of social media, union activists warned. They said the memo -- sent on behalf of Bruno Thériault, director general of Justice Canada’s workplace branch -- was heavy-handed and intimidating, and effectively called on public servants to avoid using social media altogether during the election cycle, the Ottawa Citizen reported.
The memo urges public sector unions to remember their “duty of loyalty” and stresses that “you are a public servant 24/7.”
Another document released by Canada’s Privy Council Office lays out restrictions on the online political activity of ministers and public servants during the election cycle. For the first time, it also includes guidelines on using social media. It specifies that “department-supported websites and social media channels (and any information derived from them) should continue to be used only for official government communications, and government resources should not be used to support personal or partisan social media accounts.”
Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a public sector union, told the Ottawa Citizen: “Recent memos being sent to federal public service workers go too far and seem designed to discourage our members from exercising their legitimate rights.” Meanwhile, PSAC is also preparing its own memo in order to tell its members how to legitimately use social media during the election cycle.
Concerns were also raised by the Association of Justice Counsel, which represents Justice Department lawyers. “There is no question in our minds that the department is targeting political activities,” Sandra Guttman, the association’s general counsel, said.
“Any public servant reading it would certainly be reticent to use any form of social media whatsoever at the risk of being investigated and disciplined. One might also infer from the message that the department may be monitoring computers in the workplace and online activities of its employees,” she reportedly added.
The Harper administration has often drawn fire for placing restrictions on public servants, which critics say effectively muffles dissent. The government has been accused of suppressing research on gun control, effectively gagging climate science researchers, and calling on public servants to replace the phrase “Government of Canada” in public messages with the words “Harper Government.”