Elected officials’ recent squabbles in the House of Assembly reflect a failure to work together and carry out the important business of governing the Virgin Islands.
During the HOA meeting on Oct. 31, very serious issues were under consideration. For example, should the Trade Department, which regulates free enterprise in the territory, be restructured as a statutory body? And who should be able to serve on juries to adjudicate criminal matters?
Additionally, members of the six-member opposition had posed nearly 120 questions that would have shed valuable light into the inner workings of Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley’s government.
Unfortunately, these matters did not receive the full attention they deserved. In a majority-led, party-line vote, legislators approved a last-minute revision of the order paper that determines the HOA’s schedule.
This vote postponed the question-and-answer segment until the end of the session. In response, the six-member opposition walked out in protest.
Both actions — while not without precedent in the Virgin Islands and democracies elsewhere — were exceedingly unproductive.
That’s not to say that both sides didn’t make valid points defending their decisions.
Dr. Wheatley suggested that his government needed more time to compile the detailed responses the opposition was seeking. Given the high number of questions— and the fact that they are often submitted only seven days in advance — this request was not inherently unreasonable.
But advance discussions and an offer to compromise would have been wise. Perhaps, for instance, ministers could have answered some of the questions and deferred others that required more research.
Or they might have pledged to schedule more HOA meetings in the future to ensure that the opposition is properly accommodated.
For his part, Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton argued that the “disrespect” shown to legislators on his side of the aisle prevented them from doing their constitutional duty of holding the legislative majority accountable.
He is certainly right that the government side should do its best to answer all opposition questions in a timely manner. And most of the questions on the list were good ones. When will the planned visitor centre at Trellis Bay be completed and how much will it cost? What is the status of the territory’s library system? What are the details of the BVI Tourist Board and Film Commission’s promotional plans for the upcoming season?
The opposition is to be commended for asking such questions — and lots of them. The question-and-answer session is a valuable forum for members of the public to hear the details of their government’s progress.
Indeed, given the unfortunate absence of a freedom-of-information law in the territory, it is often the only way to learn certain information.
The walkout, however, was trumped-up political theatre. Instead of taking that path, opposition members might have used part of their time in the rest of the HOA meeting to criticise the reordering rather than deciding not to participate at all.
In other words, both sides had better, less drastic, courses of action available. Surely, compromise and collaboration are the best way forward in such situations.
As a result of the walkout, no opposition members were present as the majority debated and passed three important pieces of legislation: the Virgin Islands Trade Commission (Suspensory) Act, 2023; the Jury (Amendment) Bill, 2023; and the Jury (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2023.
Compounding the problematic absence of the opposition during these debates was the fact that the first and third of these three bills were expedited through the HOA in a single day — meaning that the public never got to review them before they were passed. This is most unfortunate.
In the wake of the United Kingdom’s recent threat to suspend elected governance and impose direct rule, the existence of a democratically elected local legislature shouldn’t be taken for granted.
VI legislators from all parties would do well to put aside their squabbles and work together to focus on the important business at hand.