By Natalio D. Wheatley
As the government of National Unity continues its third week in office, I would like to provide you with an update on key issues regarding reform.
First, reform itself remains the top priority of my administration. We are committed to implementing the Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report recommendations and making other needed reforms. However, to do so, we must proceed in a structured and organised way.
The COI report calls for its recommendations to be implemented under direct rule in which the governor would sit as the sole authority. Alternatively, however, the government of National Unity has conceptualised how implementation would work under democratic governance in which the governor, premier, cabinet, ministries and the House of Assembly work together to implement the recommendations.
The government of National Unity’s proposal submitted to the United Kingdom outlines a framework for implementation along these lines, which would divide responsibilities accordingly:
- The governor would be responsible for overall implementation of the COI Report recommendations, in partnership with the Premier, and monitoring the government’s work programme and implementation timetable;
- The premier would support implementation of the recommendations of the COI Report through engagement with the governor and coordination of the ministers of government. As the leader of government business in the House of Assembly, I would also drive the legislative reform agenda;
- The cabinet would be responsible for agreeing and passing policies necessary to implement reforms;
- Ministries would be responsible for implementing the reform policies agreed by cabinet, and the House of Assembly would be responsible for passing all relevant legislation necessary for delivering reforms. The government of National Unity believes that this approach would allow for the successful implementation of the COI Report recommendations under continued democratic governance.
To be clear, there would be no calling of early elections and our work would primarily be dedicated to reform for the remainder of this term.
We are fully prepared to do this and will continue our ongoing and constructive engagement with the governor and United Kingdom on reform as the UK government considers its course of action regarding the implementation of the COI Report recommendations. I do hope an official response will be communicated as soon as possible.
The government will engage the public further on reform in the coming days to provide you with as much clarity as possible.
In the meantime, we are proceeding with some immediate reforms and changes that we believe are in the best interest of the public.
I confirmed that the BVI Ports Authority Board would be dissolved. The most recent board is no more and advertisements have been sent out for new members.
You will also recall that I stated that we will be assessing other statutory boards to determine if they should be dissolved or changes made to their composition that are in the public interest.
[Today], I would like to announce that the BVI Airports Authority Board will have a new board. I have spoken to the chair of the board and communicated the government’s wish to dissolve the most recent board. The membership of the entire board has expired or members have given their resignation. I thank the chairman and members for their service.
We have also come to the conclusion as a government that it is in the public interest to have a new Social Security Board. The chairman is currently away from the Territory and the Deputy chairman has already resigned. I take this opportunity to thank the chairman and membership for their service to the people of the Virgin Islands.
I want to make it clear that these boards are not being dismantled because of any knowledge of wrongdoing by the most recent membership. I personally know that we have members who have made strong contributions, who are people of integrity, who have sacrificed countless hours of their time and energy, but given recent events it is important for us to have a fresh start.
As I previously stated, it is not good practice for persons to sit on multiple statutory boards. These bodies should never be unduly influenced through the concentration of the same people sitting on several boards at the same time. Cabinet will very soon commission the development of a proper protocol for the appointment and dismissal of statutory board members, to ensure the process is transparent and that the criteria against which persons are selected for statutory boards is appropriate.
Once again, the announcements made today are not because anyone has been found to have done anything wrong. This is a matter of what is in the public interest.
As it concerns the BVI Tourist Board, this statutory board is critical to supporting our tourism sector. The appointments of the current Board members will expire shortly. Once this happens, new appointments will be made with strong representation from across the various sectors of the tourism industry. Tourism is too critical to our economy to not have such strong sectoral representation. I ask for the industry’s support as we prepare for the upcoming tourism season.
The government of National Unity’s action on statutory boards is another step in the right direction as we reform government. I want to make it abundantly clear. Reform is about making necessary changes to see a better future for our people. It is about engendering a new culture in the way we handle the public’s business, and strengthening and improving our institutions and systems of government.
It is not simply about what Sir Gary Hickenbottom has recommended or about what the governor and the United Kingdom want to see. We must admit that many of our established practices are not fit for purpose and that we must change them if we want to see better public services, better infrastructure and better economic performance. We must make changes at every level. The government of National Unity believes change begins with us.
That is why I am pleased to report that very shortly we will introduce the Register of Interests Act in the House of Assembly to hold us accountable as politicians. Among other things, the legislation will make our declarations public. We are also including strong punitive measures for anyone who fails to declare their interests on time or not at all. Change is needed across the board, but it must start with us.
We must also address the issue of assistance grants. As you know, for many years, we have operated a hybrid social assistance system here in the Territory. The public assistance programme ran by the Social Development Department has operated alongside the House of Assembly assistance grants programme and the provision of ministry assistance grants.
While these arrangements were originally established to assist persons in need in our communities, the socio-economic challenges of the Territory have grown beyond the ability of the current system to address. A different more effective approach is needed. One that is more structured, targeted and actually gets to the root cause of the problems that persons face so that long-term solutions can be found, especially those of a socio-economic nature.
We are at the stage where we must transition away from the current hybrid social assistance system, to a central-standardized-institutional system of support through which persons who genuinely need social assistance can receive it. The Social Development Department will be the primary vehicle through which this happens, but with added capacity and resources.
We have initiated this transition, which will be led by Penn, the minister responsible for social development who will be updating the public further in due course. The government of National Unity will ensure that as this transition takes place, persons currently receiving critical social assistance will not be adversely affected by the changes being made. I also want to reassure you, and anyone who wishes to apply for social assistance in the future, that every effort will be made to maintain your confidentiality under the new system.
To be clear, we are transition away from your elected representatives and ministries providing social assistance to this function being done primarily by the Social Development Department. We will ensure that those in need, persons with disabilities, our golden gems, and others, will not suffer while the new system is being formulated and implemented.
I want to restate what I said earlier, reform is not simply about what the COI Report recommends. It is truly about what we as a society want for ourselves. I want better for us and I know you desire the same. We have a collective responsibility to strengthen and improve our democracy. That is why the approach of the government of National Unity is to go further in some instances than the COI Report recommendations call for. For example, we will be proceeding with election reform to address issues such as campaign finance to ensure the integrity of the electoral process is as high as humanly possible. We will be updating you in due course on other reforms.
In this new era of democratic governance, we are going to renew our society and transform it into one that delivers for all. I am confident that we can do this together as a community.
I do want to remind you, change will be hard. It will be painful. People we know and care about will be affected. However, in the end, it will be for the betterment of these Virgin Islands that we love so much.
While we carry out reform, the new cabinet and junior ministers will continue working diligently to ensure the operations of government continue with respect to our schools, hospitals, clinics and other important public services. I want to assure you that we are working in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands.
I also want to encourage everyone to be positive as we look toward the future. As a community, we must be supportive of one another. It does not help any of us to spew untruths about the government of National Unity as we take steps to drive reform forward. For example, just a few days ago there was a false report by a radio personality that I gave someone an $80K contract to advance a GIS Public Television programme. This is not true, and I call on members of the media and public to be responsible at this time when we need calm and to maintain stability.
I am very concerned generally about the reckless dissemination of inaccurate information and the violation of journalistic principals well accepted across democracies across the world. Given that this subject falls under the premier’s portfolio, I will begin a conversation with the media fraternity about how we can ensure the public is given accurate information and how do we protect members of the public from slander, defamation, and libel.
This is a time in our national life where we need continued unity to get through the challenging period ahead. Let us go forward together as one people with a common purpose. Let us encourage and inspire each other as we strengthen and improve these beautiful Virgin Islands.
Our amazing athletes have done just that! They have given the Territory a much-needed boost as we take steps to rebuild our international reputation. I congratulate Team BVI once again for your outstanding performance at the CARIFTA Games and thank you for lifting our spirits. The Territory is looking forward to what you do next at the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in the United Kingdom.