TASMANIA’S agency with over-arching control for the island state’s Natural Resource Management does have difficultly with both external and internal dissent. Those in positions of power and control don’t take kindly to being challenged or argued with by others — on the outside OR inside!

If concerned citizens write directly to the bureaucracy or the Minister responsible they can expect a lengthy run around, whereas if they go public and actually get a few gasps of oxygen in the rarefied air of Tasmanian free speech then maybe there will be a bureaucratic ‘reaction’.

If a public servant writes directly through their managers or even takes the exceptionally courageous step of leapfrogging these individuals and writes to the Minister responsible then sadly one can STILL expect overt and covert bullying processes to kick in. 

Naively ordinary people — irrespective of who they are — believe we have the right to freedom of speech. Not so the ordinary Tasmanian public servant, they are tightly constrained.

An example of a bureaucratic ‘reaction’ that can be unleashed by taking part in a public debate occurred recently.

I submitted a letter to The Mercury on the DPIW review of 1080 policy which mooted a significant deregulation in the authority to handle and lay this poison. After two attempts to have it published, I submitted it to the sister paper, the Sunday Tasmanian. It was published on 16 July and three days later a letter in reply was published in The Mercury by a well known government biologist.

The standing of the particular individual in Tasmania made his response noteworthy but firstly it needed to satisfy the senior bureaucrats in the Agency.  It had to be ‘approved’ by the CEO of DPIW. And it seems there are those public servants who are ’approved’ to speak out publicly and then there are the other public servants! And yes, there are those issues that are given approval and others that are not.

On the morning that the letter of reply appeared, I received a ‘not happy’ email from a senior DPWI officer (non scientist) alerting me that the letter of reply had been published. 

“… read Nick’s letter in the Mercury this morning very carefully and look to give some support, instead of trying to invent some ridiculous conspiracy theory. I never cease to be amazed at your capacity to undermine good work that you should logically be supporting, if your stated concerns about threats to our wildlife are to be believed. Have a think about it.”

Why would a person — who was not the author of the letter of reply — feel the need to tell me that it was out there? Maybe other Tasmanian Times readers might have a view. 

On the same day a staff memorandum was sent out to DPIW staff cautioning them about ‘our media protocols’. 

Subject: Media protocols IMPORTANT           

In today’s Mercury Nick Mooney (Wildlife Management Branch, DPIW) has a letter to the editor. Nick discussed this letter with Kim Evans and myself and its submission was approved by the Head of Agency.

Some of our newer staff might not be aware of our media protocols, which includes submitting a letter to the editor, and may assume (after seeing Nick’s letter) that they are able to write to the paper under the DPIW banner without first seeking approval. This would be a good time to remind Section Leaders of the Government’s media protocols and ask them to discuss with their staff.

FYI — I do not normally support letters to the editor however this was an exception.

Regards, John.

Dr John Whittington
General Manager
Resource Management and Conservation
Department of Primary Industries and Water


Other Tasmanian Times correspondents have posted letters on this website that had originally been submitted and knocked back as a ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a local tabloid newspaper. They get knocked back because some are too long or discursive; some are considered defamatory and some because of editorial discretion. 

I’m expecting the following letter sent to The Mercury might have similar difficulty in getting out there: 
 
It is encouraging that rank & file public servants are now apparently permitted to write to the newspapers to express their opinions [Letter 19 July 2006]. Let’s hope that other government staff are afforded the same freedom to express their opinion on matters of public interest. If this is not correct, would it suggest that Mr Mooney is giving a government response rather than his own personal opinion?
 
In Tasmania’s War on Foxes, it is important for Mr Mooney to explain why foxes would prefer a buried 1080-meat bait rather than eat the abundant carrion in the Tasmanian countryside. Also he might share knowledge on the effect of foxes eating any of the tens of thousands of wallaby and possum carcasses killed by 1080 each year. Foxes have a similar sensitivity to 1080 poison as dogs and dogs are killed from eating 1080-poisoned wildlife carcasses.
 
With 50 years of 1080 use in Tasmania to kill unwanted wildlife, maybe the other significant effect has been to keep any foxes at very low to cryptic levels.
 
Finally, if Mr Mooney’s assurances that spotted tail quoll populations are bouncing back, I look forward to seeing an application from DPIW scientists arguing that this marsupial is delisted as a threatened species.

 
When there is an atmosphere where censorship imposed by others causes individuals to shy away from even taking part in a public conversation, we are all diminished!

Dialogue and expression are an integral part of a healthy democracy. No one — neither an ordinary citizen nor a public servant — should be coerced into writing or instructed into not writing. Both actions would be a corruption of the basic freedom of self expression. 

“To be or not to be that is the question …”

David Obendorf

David Obendorf

On the morning that the letter of reply appeared, I received a ‘not happy’ email from a senior DPWI officer (non scientist) alerting me that the letter of reply had been published. 

It said: “… read Nick’s letter in the Mercury this morning very carefully and look to give some support, instead of trying to invent some ridiculous conspiracy theory. I never cease to be amazed at your capacity to undermine good work that you should logically be supporting, if your stated concerns about threats to our wildlife are to be believed. Have a think about it.”

Why would a person — who was not the author of the letter of reply — feel the need to tell me that it was out there? Maybe other Tasmanian Times readers might have a view.