Dr. the Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley
Premier and Minister of Finance
House of Assembly
26 May, 2022
National Unity Government
Thank you, Madame Speaker for allowing me this opportunity to make this brief statement to this Honourable House.
Honourable Members, over the past few weeks there have been a number of significant developments as it relates to the Governance of the Virgin Islands and how we are continuing to ensure the good conduct of the business of the people as their democratically elected Representatives under our current Constitutional arrangement.
These developments have been precipitated mainly by the events in the United States on 28 April, 2022, which involve the former Premier, and the publication of Sir Gary Hickinbottom’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report by His Excellency Governor John J. Rankin CMG almost immediately thereafter.
We saw a visit to the Virgin Islands by the United Kingdom Minister for the Overseas Territories, the Right Honourable Amanda Milling, where she discussed the findings and recommendations of the report with the Members of the House of Assembly who represent the various political parties, Members of the Government, representatives of the business community and civil society, and other select persons.
Of course, one of the overarching recommendations is the partial suspension of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007 for a minimum of two years. If implemented, this would involve suspension of Ministerial Government, suspension of the House of Assembly and the Governor would assume full executive and legislative authority while being advised by a Council that he would constitute.
Proposals were put forward by the then Government in collaboration with the then Opposition on how the reforms recommended in the COI could be achieved without disrupting democratic Governance in the Virgin Islands and with the engagement and partnership of the UK Government, the Governor and all other stakeholders.
These meetings, and the communications thereafter, have been cordial and positive. Minister Milling has indicated that no decisions have been taken by the UK Government as to what approach the UK will be proceeding with.
Mr Speaker, to complement our efforts and our commitment to the very urgent and necessary reforms, we have constituted a new Government, the Government of National Unity, with new Ministers drawn from across party lines.
Following the successful Motion of No Confidence against the previous Andrew Fahie led Government at our last sitting on 5 May, 2022, Governor Rankin administered the Oath of Office, appointing me Premier and Minister of Finance. Other Ministerial Appointments were made as follows:
- Honourable Sharie B. de Castro - Minister for Education, Culture, Youth Affairs and Sports;
- Honourable Marlon Penn - Minister for Health and Social Development;
- Honourable Melvin “Mitch” Turnbull - Minister for Natural Resources and Labour;
- Honourable Alvera Maduro-Caines - Junior Minister for Tourism; and
- Honourable Shereen Flax-Charles - Junior Minister for Trade, Economic Development, Agriculture and Fisheries.
Honourable Kye Rymer was appointed as Minister for Communication and Works and as Deputy Premier.
I thank 9th District Representative, Honourable Vincent O. Wheatley, and At Large Representative, Honourable Carvin Malone, for their service as Ministers, and we are grateful to them, along with the Representative for the 4th District, Honourable Mark Vanterpool, for their support of this Government of National Unity at this critical time in the Virgin Islands.
I also show gratitude to our Territorial At Large Member, Hon. Neville Smith, who continues as our Deputy Speaker.
I also wish to thank the Honourable Julian Willock for his service as Speaker and for the contributions he has made in his tenure. Honourable Willock resigned from the post of Speaker on 3 May, 2022.
Discussions have been ongoing between the Government of the Virgin Islands and the Governor and the UK Government, while we wait for the UK’s response to our proposal and their final decision.
Since the formation of the Government of National Unity, we have begun the implementation of reform, starting with our Boards, including the Ports Authority Board, the Airport Authority Board, the Social Security Board and others.
I thank the Chairmen and membership of these Boards for their service. I must emphasize that our dismantling of these Boards was not due to any knowledge of wrongdoing on their part but, in light of all that has happened, the need for a fresh start in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands.
Madame Speaker, these are unprecedented times for the Virgin Islands, with challenges like we have never faced before as a people – and these are challenges layered on top of other challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the international impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war, and our recovery from the 2017 floods and hurricanes.
The situation calls for all of us to put aside party interests and personal ambitions, and to even embrace disappointment at times, which I know is a lot to ask.
We are all committed to the reforms. But this is more than just a box-checking exercise.
While the process of addressing the COI recommendations will involve making changes to legislation—some of which will carry forward into the Constitutional Review—and developing and implementing policies, it will also entail audits and investigations by the relevant independent offices and bodies.
It is critical that all of these things are done in an atmosphere of transparency. All our stakeholders, whether at home in the Virgin Islands, or in the UK Government, or in the international community, must have confidence that the processes are free from any partisan interests and influences.
This is why our National Unity Government is so important.
By having Members of different parties in Cabinet and involved in other areas of decision making, we are ensuring that there is transparency, wider participation in the political process, and agreement across political groups as we make decisions and effect measures that affect the whole of the Virgin Islands not just for the present but into the future.
Of course, whatever we have to do will be done in collaboration with the Governor and the UK Government, and this would be further reason to allay any concerns anyone may have.
Madame Speaker, we will soon be announcing a series of meetings to speak to the people of the Virgin Islands about our plans to implement reform and avoid the suspension of our Constitution, which must be the goal of all Virgin Islanders.
Our democracy is something our forebearers worked hard for. Re-establishment of the legislature in the Virgin Islands 72 years ago was something our fore-fathers had to fight for, the Federal Council having been abolished in 1902.
In the 1950s and 1960s our people were able to elect their Representatives, and we implemented Ministerial Government. In the 1970s the local Government was vested with an increased number of subject areas to manage.
Under the stewardship of my Grandfather, the late Dr. Willard Wheatley, in the late 1970s we came off Grant in Aid when we realized our first budgetary surplus.
And in the time since, we have achieved a lot in terms of development. All of this is part of the proud and treasured legacy of our fore-parents.
So, I fully understand the concern of our people when all these accomplishments, in terms of our political, social and economic development, hang in the balance.
But I want to assure the public we have been listening to their cry for good governance which is at the heart of our proposal to the UK. We look forward to discussing our plans in the coming weeks with the people of the Virgin Islands
In the meantime, we wait for a response from the UK on the proposal we have put forward as a National Unity Government.
Madame Speaker implementing the reforms recommended in the COI report is among the highest priority for all Ministries.
We have to do this while ensuring that the machinery of Government continues to run so that the needs of the public can be attended to. This includes ensuring that while we implement the reforms, we ensure the smooth functioning of all areas of our society – from our economy, to the social system, and all our industries.
This involves reviewing all the programmes, projects and initiatives in the Ministries and reprioritising them accordingly.
We also have to bear in mind that this will affect how human and other resources are deployed. Therefore, it is only practical that we look at the body of work as a whole, adjust the priorities and focus on the things that are necessary and realistically achievable within time and budget.
I have said it on prior occasions, and it is worth repeating. The road ahead requires us to embrace change and to be willing to evolve and to improve. Change is not always easy, but we have to power through.
Some of the things we have to change are things that we have outgrown or which have become obsolete with the passage of time. Some of those things have been holding back our progress.
And therefore, as we embrace change and as we transform ourselves and our processes and systems, we are equipping the Virgin Islands for a better and brighter tomorrow.
In the same way that changes in the past have catapulted our political and economic development, I am confident that as we implement the reforms and transform the Virgin Islands, we are setting the stage for a new wave of political and economic development for our people.
This kind of change is change that we need, and it is change that will benefit us, Madame Speaker. Because, the past few years have intensified our awareness of the urgency to diversify our economy and to strengthen our resilience to shocks from the global economy, climate change and so forth.
When implemented, the reforms will further strengthen accountability, transparency and Good Governance. They will ensure that the best practices and highest standards are applied to public affairs. They will ensure our people get value for money, and that more can be achieved with the money that is available – whether in better healthcare, education, road infrastructure, water or other Government services. The reforms will allow us to create more opportunities for more people, and to lift the quality of life of Virgin Islanders and residents.
I am, therefore, very optimistic that the reforms will bring a lot of positive benefit to the Virgin Islands. And this is one of the reasons why I am looking forward to working with all our partners – at home and abroad – to get these reforms done, and for them to be done right - inclusive of ensuring that we have the confidence from the local public and the international community.
Madame Speaker, as further developments emerge and as we move forward with the plans we have framed for managing the affairs of the Virgin Islands, your Government of National Unity will be providing updates to the people and engaging in the necessary conversations that must be had.
Myself as Premier and the other Ministers will also provide updates on our respective areas of responsibility as we progress.
I wish to thank all the Members of this Honourable House who have chosen to work together in the best interests of our Virgin Islands. I wish to thank our Belongers and residents for their patience, understanding and cooperation as we navigate these unprecedented challenges.
And I look forward to all of us working together with a common vision to implement the reforms and to transform these Virgin Islands so that we can unlock even more of our potential.
I thank you.