Almost 25 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that federal public service employees have a constitutional right to engage in political activity. At that time, the Public Service Employment Act did not allow these employees to take part in any political activities except casting their vote.
The Court agreed that political activity is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s guarantee of freedom of expression to individuals.
Examples of political activity:
- volunteering to knock on doors during a political campaign
- participating in an advocacy organization
- writing a letter to an MP
- sitting on the executive of a local riding association
Political activity vs political neutrality in the public service
The Supreme Court recognized that federal public service workers can engage in political activity as citizens without putting the neutrality of the public service at risk.
The Supreme Court recognized this balance when ruling that public service employees have the right to be political active.
The Court found that while maintaining the neutrality of the federal public service was important, a complete ban on political activity went too far in limiting their right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Banning everyone from political activity did not take into account that the need for impartiality, or its appearance, varies depending on the type of work being performed and the employee’s relative role, level or importance in the public service.
What to consider if you are engaging in political activity
If you are not sure about whether or not to engage in a specific political activity, consider the following:
- Your visibility
- Your duties and responsibilities
- Your level of influence
- If you hold office in a union at a local, regional or national level
Jobs with more influence and responsibility
Federal public employees who have jobs with a great deal of responsibility, influence and visibility may more easily be perceived as being politically partisan. The Supreme Court recognized this when it continued to ban deputy heads from engaging in political activity.
Union spokespersons have greater freedom to engage in political activities in certain cases. When speaking on behalf of the union, they can challenge government policies openly and critically in ways that others may not be able to, for example, when commenting on cuts to public services and the impact of these cuts. However, comments must not be reckless, malicious or dishonest.
The same rules and considerations apply when exercising political rights through social media (e.g. web sites, Facebook, Twitter).
If you are a union representative, you can use social media when engaging in protected union activity as long as you follow the guidelines discussed above.
PSAC still urges members to be cautious when using social media to express their opinions. Once something is published, it is very hard to take back or retract.
The Public Service Commission takes its own position
Despite the Supreme Court’s observation that many federal public service workers “are completely divorced from the exercise of any discretion that could be in any manner affected by political considerations”, the Public Service Commission still discourages PSAC members from exercising their political rights.
Members who use the Commission’s on-line tool to assess their political rights should treat the results with caution. The tool reinforces a position that federal public service employees should engage in very few, if any, political activities, contrary to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of their Charter rights. The Commission does not have the authority or power to limit these rights.