Free speech for the Public Service? Friends only, foes face prosecution

by | Feb 22, 2021 | Government

The Department of Parliamentary Services has been in the news following reports that it withheld its security incident report into the Brittany Higgins case from the Australian Federal Police, despite multiple requests, and was only provided after the police escalated inquiries. It seems the DPS has form in wanting to bury bad news. Marcus Reubenstein reports.

LEGAL NOTICE

This story is subject to a legal challenge by government-funded law firm Meyer Vandenberg on behalf of Geoff Wade. We have offered Mr Wade the opportunity to write a story in response.

As far as we are aware there are no errors of fact in this story but we will promptly address any errors if or when they become apparent and apologise to Mr Wade. The Department of Parliamentary Services where Mr Wade works has declined to respond to questions as to the dates Mr Wade has been employed and the kind of tenure pertaining to his employment. He may have been on leave, or may have left the department and returned.

STORY

Last year public servant Josh Krook wrote a blog post in which he argued that Covid-19 benefitted big tech because forced social isolation would drive people to online platforms. He worked for the Commonwealth Industry Department that deals extensively with tech companies; he was fired because he refused to delete the post.

This follows the firing of Immigration Department employee Michaela Banerji, who was dismissed over a series of Tweets, among other things, that were critical of Australia’s treatment of refugees. Banerji made 9,000 posts, mostly sent from her personal device outside of work hours.

The High Court ruled Banerji’s dismissal was warranted because she had breached the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct which stipulates that public servants must act impartially and are prohibited from engaging in any forms of “harassment”. The 2019 High Court ruling (Comcare v Banerji) effectively said public servants could be sacked for comments they make on social media.

And then we come to Geoff Philip Wade, a public servant employed by the Department of Parliamentary Services.

Wade, who works as a researcher in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, is one of Australia’s most prolific anti-China Twitter users. Wade has made 42,000 posts, nearly five times that of Banerji, a great number of which appear to have been sent from inside Parliament House.

Often during his “working day” he will send out Tweets every five or 10 minutes. He has published photos, phone numbers and personal email addresses of people whose only crime is being Chinese or advancing views contrary to his own.

The Department of Parliamentary Services refused to answer questions about Wade’s use of social media during taxpayer-funded work hours. A spokesperson cited “privacy considerations”.

The Parliamentary Service Act (1999) governs the functions of the Parliamentary Library, with staff expected to conduct themselves with “integrity” and “having regard to the independence of Parliament from the Executive Government of the Commonwealth”.

DPS refuses to answer questions

An email request for a copy of its social media policy was sent to the Department of Parliamentary Services on February 3. Shortly after, one of the department’s media advisers responded asking what the request was in relation to.

After being told this reporter was investigating whether Geoff Wade was in breach of social media policy, the media representative advised they were “unaware” of Wade’s online activity and asked for “time to investigate”.

Specific examples were given to the DPS of Wade’s social media posts, including attacks on, a Queensland Police initiative presided over by that state’s then Police Commissioner; a university vice chancellor; a prominent Chinese-Australian businessman; accusing a senior journalist of plagiarism; and accusing the Group of Eight universities of working in direct collaboration with a political arm of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a response sent on February 11, the Department refused to answer whether any of Wade’s social media posts ignored the Parliamentary Library’s directive that its staff must act with “integrity”.

Not playing by the non-partisan rules?

Human rights advocate Greg Barns SC, of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says, “The contrast between the inaction of the Commonwealth in relation to Wade and the brutal punishment of Michaela Banerji is telling. It shows there is clear inconsistency of the rights of public servants in relation to freedom of speech.”

One of the main reasons Banerji was fired was because her Tweets were considered politically partisan, and therefore an egregious breach of the Public Service Commission’s Code of Conduct.

Similarly, Wade, as a public servant, is expected to adhere to the same code of conduct. However, Wade has promoted the political activities of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and the comments of its vehemently anti-China co-founder West Australian Liberal Andrew Hastie.

In May 2020, Wade posted a link promoting an anti-China website run by controversial Queensland LNP Member George Christensen.

He also Tweeted former Labor MP Michael Danby’s anti-China comments on right wing media outlets Sky News, The Spectator and in Murdoch press. Danby, regarded as one of the most anti-China politicians within ALP ranks, made special mention of Wade in his valedictory speech upon his retirement in 2019.

Approved for media roles?

As a public servant, Wade’s employment carries important notions of independence. However, he has been a regular contributor to ASPI’s periodical magazine The Strategist, writing a dozen articles highly critical of China. There is no disclosure of Wade’s employment as a public servant.

Although the Department of Parliamentary Services says its staff are prohibited from speaking to journalists “without approval”, in August 2016, an internal parliamentary research paper he wrote attacking China appeared as an “Exclusive” feature in the Australian Financial Review.

The Department of Parliamentary Services will not disclose the dates of Wade’s employment but public records show he was working in the library at least as early as May 2014. Eight weeks later Wade set up his Twitter account.

In 2016 he gave a 20-minute interview to Sydney radio station 2GB, criticizing Chinese investment in Australia. He has also been quoted a number of times across ABC, Fairfax and Murdoch publications.

In February 2016 Wade lodged a public submission with a Commonwealth Parliamentary Inquiry without disclosing he had been employed in the parliamentary library. One of his assertions was that the Chinese Navy was poised to establish a military base in Australia following the lease of the Darwin Port to a Chinese company.

At the public hearing of the same inquiry, then Defence Department chief Dennis Richardson told the Senate:

“[Wade’s opinion] is alarmist nonsense. It is without foundation in any way.”

Tenuous links to ANU

In 1978 Wade graduated from ANU with a degree in Asian Studies. In November 2015 he was given a 12-month appointment as a visiting fellow at the ANU. According to a spokesperson:

“ANU chose not to reappoint Geoff Wade as a visiting fellow when his 12-month term expired in 2016.”

Furthermore:

“[Wade’s] comments in no way represented the views of ANU or the Crawford School of Public Policy.”

Despite this, Wade has been quoted numerous times in media interviews as a “visiting fellow” at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy. He includes an ANU email address as a contact on his Twitter profile and shares his research using a private email address provided by the university’s alumni association.

Since being dropped by ANU, he has attacked three senior academics at the Crawford School, in one instance posting the personal email address and direct phone number of one of ANU’s most distinguished professors.

He has sent out 130 Tweets relating to the ANU, many of them suggesting academic staff have nefarious indirect links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Interestingly, while Wade has a proclivity for linking people to the Chinese Communist Party, he has a past littered with numerous links to communist China.

While working with Chinese communist party aligned institutions, he even gave himself a Chinese name 韦杰夫 (Wéijiéfū). In 2014 Wade was “Conference Secretary” for a two-day seminar jointly run with the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Jinan University

A profile of Wade from the Center for Global Asia reveals he conducted research at NYU Shanghai, which is jointly operated by the Chinese Communist Party-controlled East China Normal University.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marcus Reubenstein

Marcus Reubenstein

Marcus Reubenstein is an independent journalist with more than twenty years of media experience. He spent five years at Seven News in Sydney and seven years at SBS World News where he was a senior correspondent. As a print journalist he has contributed business stories to most of Australia’s major news outlets. Internationally he has worked on assignments for CNN, Eurosport and the Olympic Games Broadcasting Service. He is the founder and editor of China-focussed business website, APAC News. You can follow Marcus on Twitter @ReubensteinApac.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Fascinating stuff. It’s about time the APS was renamed as the “Australian Government Service”. Only the Audit Office and the Electoral Commission have much integrity left, and praise be for the High Court.

    Having famously trashed the Audit Office, diligent Gaetjens of PM&C is now investigating “whether there was knowledge in the PMO [of the Higgins events]”. I’m expecting a run on that Citrus Zest Air Freshener from Aldi.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you Marcus Rubenstein, excellent presentation,

    I note that Greg Barns SC, Human rights advocate and enjoiner of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says, “The contrast between the inaction of the Commonwealth in relation to Wade and the brutal punishment of Michaela Banerji is telling. It shows there is clear inconsistency of the rights of public servants in relation to freedom of speech.
    Revealed also is the imperceptible bias that occasionally visits the High Court.

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