Information director’s criticisms of Indian descent conference don’t represent gov’t position

-Harmon

Minister of State Joseph Harmon has distanced government from a Facebook post by Director of Public Information (DPI) Imran Khan in which he questioned whether the Indian High Commission in Guyana was interfering in the country’s internal affairs after ministers of government were not invited to a conference for persons of Indian descent in India.

Harmon yesterday explained that that after invitations were received, the decision on who would attend the in India was made by government’s Chief Whip Amna Ally, who engaged with the Indian High Commissioner on the matter.  A similar engagement is said to have occurred with Opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira.

Indian High Commissioner to Guyana V Mahalingam, who dubbed Khan’s initial post both reckless and intentionally misleading, has explained that persons of Indian origin who are not ministers were invited.

Speaking at a post-Cabinet press briefing yesterday, Harmon said that while Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo is expected to issue a statement after looking at the matter, there was not much control that could be exercised in such a situation. “People put up things on their personal pages and all we can ask is that if you are in government that you exercise a certain amount of restraint in putting out what might be your personal opinion,” he said.

Harmon noted that he has seen newspaper reports on the issue and wished to state that Khan “does not represent the position of the government.”

“We have excellent relations with India and we continue to work on those relations. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement which we have with that country and we would like to work to ensure that it gets better,” he explained, before referring to Khan’s statement as an aberration rather than a norm.

In addition to criticism by Mahalingam, Khan’s initial post also attracted a public reprimand from Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence, who suggested that he remove it.

In the post, Khan not only questioned whether the High Commission was interfering in Guyana’s internal affairs, but also asked if it was attempting to engage in destabilisation of the coalition government.

He pointed out that out of the 23 Guyanese attending the conference, 20 were opposition PPP/C parliamentarians.

“Were any of the Indo-Guyanese ministers of government and sitting Members of Parliament invited to the Persons of Indian Origin Members of Parliament Conference currently ongoing in India? Or did the High Commission only and deliberately invite three Coalition Government backbench parliamentarians while specifically ignoring ministers? If so, on what basis was this decision made?” he asked in the post.

High Commissioner Mahalingam, who was tagged in Khan’s post, responded and called the post “unfortunate, irresponsible [and] unprofessional.”

According to the High Commissioner, many in the hierarchy of Government of Guyana and the Guyana High Commission in New Delhi are aware of the invitations from the Government of India for 23 Members of Parliament and three Mayors and the rationale behind inviting only those Persons of Indian Origin who are not ministers. “Hence reckless comments on such a serious issue on social media with the clear intention to mislead the general public by none other than Director of Public Information is unfortunate, irresponsible, unprofessional and to say the least, mischievous given the excellent bilateral relations being enjoyed by both India and Guyana and the ongoing friendly cooperation in various multilateral fora,” he added.

Khan has since defended his post, while stressing that as a private citizen he was entitled to an opinion.

“This is an issue that I raised as a citizen. I have asked questions as a citizen, which is my constitutional right,” Khan told Stabroek News when contacted on Thursday.

He further indicated that he had every intention to make another post relating to the issue in light of the comments made by Mahalingam. He has since made several such posts, including one in which he questioned the invitation extended to Marlene Malahoo-Forte, Attorney General of Jamaica

In this post, Khan noted that Malahoo-Forte is an elected member of Jamaica’s Parliament and a ranking member of Cabinet. “She was invited to and attended the Persons of Indian Origin Parliamentarians Conference in New Delhi, India. No Minister from Guyana was invited. Only non-minister MPs were invited from Guyana. Why the double standard?” he asked of Mahalingam, who was once again tagged.

In his response, the High Commissioner noted though she is Attorney General, Malahoo-Forte is not a minister of government.

“As far we know Ms. Marlene Malahoo-Forte, who is Attorney General of Jamaica and an elected MP of Jamaica, was invited for the Persons of Indian Origin Parliamentarian Conference in New Delhi as she is not a Minister as in the case of Guyana where the Attorney General also holds the post of Minister of Legal Affairs,” the High Commissioner explained.

It is international practice that Ministers of Government do not undertake travel duties unless it relates directly to their portfolio. This provision may be waived in special cases or if the minister holds no specific portfolio.

In fact, the Cabinet Manual for Ministers in New Zealand specifically states that ministers’ travel should usually be for one or more of the following purposes relating to their portfolios: to attend specific conferences, meetings, or events; to familiarise themselves with specific issues; or to meet international obligations.

It notes that travel proposals require the preliminary approval of the Prime Minister [Head of State].

“Ministers wishing to travel during a House sitting period will also need the agreement of the party whips. A Cabinet paper proposing the travel must subsequently be submitted to and approved by Cabinet,” it further says, while adding that ministers must seek the agreement of another minister or ministers to act for them during their proposed absence and the Prime Minister will take into account the number of ministers overseas at any one time with the usual practice being that no more than four Ministers in Cabinet to be absent on official business at the same time.

Similar guidelines have been published by the British, Australian and Canadian governments.

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