In previous commentaries published in the Beacon on Feb. 9 and 23, I addressed the significance of the ongoing constitutional review to the future political socioeconomic development of the Virgin Islands and how it will establish a path for future political advancement towards self-governance. There is no denying that a massive amount of work is needed to strengthen the existing governance systems over more than two years and develop new ones that will bring our society greater levels of transparency, inclusivity, consensus, accountability, and rule of law. Appropriate checks and balances, in addition to easy public access to information, will move us towards a democracy in its truest form: government by the people, for the people, of the people. For example, if we were to appoint a local governor, they would need to be accountable to the other branches of government — and not be above the law as it stands right now.
With such considerations in mind, below are more ideas for making our Constitution stronger.
Executive and legislative
- Currently, the monarch as the head of state is the final authority in our territory. The exercise of the executive authority on the behalf of the monarch should be by the government, which consists of the governor and the Cabinet, for a balance of power between elected and appointed officials — and not just the governor as it stands now. See the Cayman Islands Constitutional Order 2009 clause 43 (2).
- I think there should be term limits for all members of the House of Assembly and/or a limit of two terms for the premier to promote transition of leadership and new perspectives. See the Turks and Caicos Islands Constitution 2011, clause 31 (3). I also propose for consideration that the length of the HOA term be extended from four to five years to allow for more governing and policymaking to be done during each term, along with a fixed date for elections. As a side note, I do not believe that we have too small a pool of people who are able and competent to serve in the HOA or that there would be a shortage of political leaders if we implemented term limits. More of our population are well-educated compared to 50 years ago, and the pool of leaders is bigger and not smaller. What I believe has happened based on my personal experience and observations, is that we have done a poor job of mentoring and succession planning to develop future leaders for public life. Leadership development amongst our youth must be intentionally done if we are going to prepare them for governance.
- As it relates to the question of holding the executive ministerial government accountable to the legislative branch, I do not see how this can be effectively done in the current unicameral or one-legislative-house system where the Cabinet members sit in the legislature. It may be time for us to have a senate (again) where the members are appointed by the government, opposition and governor. The majority of seats would be appointed by opposition and governor combined. Bills would not be passed unless approved by the second house. This is also a way to groom future political leaders by exposing them to the systems of governance.
- The proper functioning of the standing committees in the HOA is vital to bringing accountability of Cabinet or executive branch to the HOA or legislative branch. For example, consider the Public Accounts Committee. If it were operating as intended, some of the findings of the COI would not have been new revelations because the matters would have been dealt with from onset and not years later.
- The HOA’s committee stage meetings should be made public for greater transparency and public awareness as is the norm throughout the region. I can watch the Standing Finance Committee debates in Jamaica, but here everything seems to be shrouded in secrecy while our taxpayers’ money is being discussed. I think this is a missed opportunity to educate the public about various laws and to promote compliance with laws through greater public awareness.
- Our Constitution already allows for the speaker to be an elected member of the HOA or to be appointed, and the former option should be exercised periodically instead of usual political appointments. The speaker would be required to resign from their party affiliation to be neutral and unbiased.
- An independent body should review contracts that involve elected officials doing business with the government for conflicts of interest and make a recommendation to the HOA before contracts are awarded and not after the fact. I think that whatever “agency” is managing the Register of Interests would be best suited for this role, because they would know the details of a member’s interests.
- The working relationship between the Cabinet and the public service could be first addressed with the replacement of the General Orders with the Public Service Management Code that has been in draft for over a decade. The modern legislation lays out fairer terms and conditions of employment for public office that create a transparent and accountable environment for the implementation of policy and regulations without direct political interference. The legislative branch of government is responsible for funding the public service’s operations, whilst the governor is responsible for the management of the performance of the public service. These two roles must work with more synergy for there to be a results-oriented culture in the organisation and for the public service to become more efficient and effective.
- The membership of the National Security Council is not inclusive enough and excludes the perspective of valuable stakeholders like the opposition leader; law enforcement agencies such Immigration and Customs; and members of civil society. It should be expanded like the Cayman Islands’ NSC for inclusiveness, rule of law and accountability.
- The section on finances in our constitutional order needs to be strengthened, especially in the areas of reporting and excess expenditure. See Part IX of the TCI Constitution. The minister of finance should report at least twice per year to the HOA and quarterly to the Cabinet along with other reporting measures to bring greater accountability of the taxpayers’ dollars.
The fallout of the recent Commission of Inquiry into our governance systems has rocked us to our core and has been a wake-up call for many. As part of the strategy to prevent us from finding ourselves in this place again, it is important that VI civics and history become subjects in the school curriculum to promote good citizenship.
If we want to have trustworthy and responsible leaders, we have to teach our citizens from an early age about the journey of us as a people and the role we each play in good governance and safeguarding this legacy. We need to teach that “with rights come responsibilities” and that ignorance is not bliss.
Despite all that has transpired over the past two years, I believe our best days are ahead of us and that there are those amongst us who are competent and have the courage to make the hard decisions that will allow future generations to thrive and have a good quality of life in our beautiful VI.