Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader Philip Brave Davis yesterday accused Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson of engaging in political rhetoric and acting contrary to public service rules, and demanded that Johnson either resign and enter frontline politics or stay quiet.
Johnson has made several posts on Facebook regarding the government’s 2018/2019 budget and the planned increase in value-added tax (VAT) from 7.5 percent to 12 percent.
While Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest said he would speak with Johnson regarding his Facebook posts, the minister noted that the financial secretary has been setting the record straight and bringing “context” to “what has gotten us to the point where we are”.
The back-and-forth began shortly after the House resumed yesterday, after Davis took to his feet.
“It has been brought to my attention that a civil servant who holds the post of financial secretary is engaging on his Facebook, contrary to the public service rules… or whatever, in political chatter,” Davis said.
“In fact, I am advised today he has gone as far as to call the PLP corrupt.
“This is Mr. Marlon Johnson. I have been refraining from addressing him, but I ask the minister of finance, because he may not be a civil servant but he is engaging in the arena of politics.”
Davis added, “But for the financial secretary, or the acting financial secretary, to be engaged in the political rhetoric surrounding this exercise is contrary to the rules of the public service.
“He either ought to give up the post and get into the political arena with us to discuss it, or stay quiet.
“I am going to call upon the minister of finance, and I will present him with the information that I have and to the minister of public service, to determine what should happen to him in these circumstances.”
Johnson has been making the rounds on the airwaves since the government announced the 60 percent increase in VAT, which will take effect July 1.
He has also been attempting to make the case for the increase on social media.
In one post, a Facebook user suggested the Free National Movement (FNM) won the election based on “misinformation”, noting that Johnson was doing “damage control” after the VAT hike announcement.
Johnson responded, “Misinformation? It has nothing to do with the actual performance of the previous administration? The four downgrades? The massive run-up of debt after VAT? The inability to get Baha Mar open? The persistent scandals? In your view it was misinformation that caused the defeat of the former administration? Interesting.”
General orders for the public service restrict public servants from engaging in political activities defined as speaking in public, particularly in the news media, on matters of national political controversy.
Turnquest argued that the government has engaged the public on the budget to answer questions from the public.
“I think it is interesting that you go to somebody’s personal Facebook page or WhatsApp or whatever it is to talk about what they may say in the private confines of whatever it is that they are in,” Turnquest said.
“But Mr. Speaker, we have to be careful about that, because all of us have a certain right, and this is where you get into data protection and all these kinds of things.
“There’s a lot of issues attendant to this. But one thing that is clear, Mr. Speaker, is that this Ministry of Finance, under this minister of finance, has made it a deliberate point for us to engage with the public, one-on-one, not to hide from the public anything and to have open and frank discussions with them.
“To the extent that we are not only electronically dealing with them – we are dealing with them on the level that we find them. Sometimes that is on social media.
“We are seeing them at town meetings. We are seeing them on the radio and TV interviews because we want to make sure that people understand what this budget is about, what we are trying to accomplish as a government and we need, unfortunately, to disabuse of some of this fake news and these very malicious videos and WhatsApps that are going around, some generated by people who know better, who absolutely know better.
“So, we have to take advantage of every possible opportunity to do that.
“I will look at whatever it is that has been said, and I will guide accordingly.
“But let us not portray to the public that this is the first time that a financial secretary (FS) has engaged the public, because the record is clear with respect to that. It is absolutely clear. It happened with the previous FS and one before it. Okay. So let’s not try to make something out of nothing.
“We will continue to be engaged with the public. We will continue to inform and to educate. That is our job, and that is our commitment to the Bahamian people.”
Davis rose and clarified that he does not take issue with the government seeking to educate the public.
“That is not the issue here,” he said. “The issue [is] when that exercise crosses the line.
“When it leaves the question of educating about what we are doing and about to do.
“Insofar as Facebook is concerned, that is social media. If it were a private matter, there are ways and means of the person protecting his own privacy on Facebook.”
Turnquest responded that when information on the ministry’s Facebook page is challenged, “sometimes we have to go back and present the facts”.
“Sometimes that may be unflattering to a previous administration,” Turnquest said.
“But we have an obligation to give the context because the question is asked in a way that it demands that you put it in context. And so I don’t know if that’s what the member is referring to, but again, in order to answer the question you have to go back and help people to understand the context.
“So again, I will have a conversation with the FS about his private posts because, again, obviously people are looking into things and trying to make things out of personal posts. But again with respect to the official posts… and the official engagements where he spoke to the public, it is in his capacity as the financial secretary, and sometimes you have to go back to give context to the decisions that we’ve made so the people have a full grasp of what it is we are trying to do and what has got us to the point where we are to have to make the kinds of decisions that we’ve made.”