OPINION

Free speech controversies prove instructive

We live under the assumption that we have the right to freedom of speech. But we are not America. We actually have no Bill of Rights. It's an understandable mistake to make given the amount of American culture that we are exposed to as the norm on a daily basis but - for now, at least - their laws and constitution does not apply here.

Australia has no explicit freedom of speech through our constitution, with the exception of political speech - unless you work for the public service and are subject to the APS code of conduct now thanks to the recent High Court ruling in the Michaela Banerji case.

The ABC reported that Ms Banerji's lawyer expects the decision to have far-reaching consequences for any employee-employer relationship "when the employee is critical of the employer's position on some politically relevant social issue."

It seems that the cultural fit of the hire is now a critical decision not just for the company, but also for the employee.

As job applicants, we often look up the buzzwords that the company uses to define their mission and values so we can use the same terms in our application.

But now, more than ever, this research is vital to whether or not we should be applying for the job.

If we are applying for a role with an organisation that we aren't completely in alignment with on a values level, we not only find ourselves compromising on a daily basis in the job that we do, but now, it seems we also muzzle ourselves to express our opinion on our "own time".

It seems that the cultural fit of the hire is now a critical decision not just for the company, but also for the employee.

In fact, one could be forgiven for asking the question, do we even have our "own time" anymore? If we aren't allowed to express ourselves in alignment with our own beliefs and values on our own private, or even anonymous social media accounts, then are we ever really off the clock? Do we belong to ourselves or do our employers own us?

I am wary of any organisation that cannot accept criticism. An organisation that feels the need to legislate control over what employees say about it smacks of an organisation trying to hide its flaws, rather than address them.

The APS code of conduct states that an employee must uphold the integrity and good reputation of the employee's agency and the APS, but what if that reputation is founded on falsehoods and misrepresentations? Is it more important to cover them up and paste a smile over the top or address these issues and blow the whistle?

Whistleblowing is an issue that is fraught with individual risk, and most people don't have the courage to speak up because of the impact it might have on them personally.

We only have to look at the whistleblower who is facing 161 years in prison for breaking his silence on the alleged abuse of power inside the Tax Office, including aggressive debt collection practices. Let that sink in ... 161 years. The average prison sentence for murder in Australian is 20-25 years.

On the other end of this spectrum, we have Alan Jones. Radio station 2GB characterises Alan Jones as "Australia's most popular talkback presenter," claiming that many describe him as "the nation's greatest orator and motivational speaker." He clearly makes a mint for 2GB.

Perhaps that's why, after yet another tirade, this time against Jacinda Ardern in the last week, they've decided to give him another second chance. Perhaps that's the secret - if you make money for your organisation, you can say whatever you want.

While our freedom of opinion and expression does have some protections through the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and inferred by the High Court of Australia, it is not an absolute - there are restrictions.

The Criminal Code Act 1995 contains offences relating to the use of a telecommunications carriage service in a way which is intentionally menacing, harassing, or offensive or communicates content that is. Neither are we allowed to advocate for hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination. You have the right to be an ass, but if you are, you have the right to be treated as one.

Our words are not without consequence. It seems that we need to be extremely mindful of the companies that we choose to work for, now more than ever.

Unless you make them a bucketload of money. In that case, as you were.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at impressability.com.au