Throughout his Commission of Inquiry, Sir Gary Hickinbottom demonstrated an unshakeable commitment to transparency. As a result, his findings have currency in the Virgin Islands community, which was able to follow his investigation in detail.
Now, a similarly transparent approach must be adopted by the United Kingdom and Virgin Islands leaders who are deciding the next steps.
Unfortunately, they are not off to a great start.
They should consider Sir Gary’s process, which is an excellent example for the way forward. From the beginning, he encouraged input from all sectors of the community, guaranteeing confidentiality on request while simultaneously making the COI as public as possible.
He live-streamed most hearings and released full transcripts afterwards, and he published audits and other documents discussed during the proceeding. This information is still available online, and his meticulous final report includes further supporting documents and a full explanation of his processes and reasoning.
However, after Sir Gary delivered his report to Governor John Rankin at the start of April, the light has largely gone dark.
First, the governor delayed the report’s release until June, only to change his mind suddenly the day after former premier Andrew Fahie’s surprise arrest in Miami.
Then came the visit of Amanda Milling, the United Kingdom minister for overseas territories. We are glad that Ms. Milling came here to “listen,” as she explained it, but during her three days in the territory she never held a public meeting or a press conference.
Instead, she released a statement on her departure explaining that that she had met with political party leaders as well as business and tourism leaders; financial industry representatives; church leaders; leaders of community groups; and “some of the most experienced political and public service figures.”
She didn’t provide further details, and we frankly doubt that she heard all the voices she should have heard in a community where people are often reluctant to speak up because they fear retaliation or bullying from powerful interests. We have recently seen some of these bullying tactics on social media, and we suspect the minister may not be sufficiently familiar with the VI to know how this behaviour is perpetuated amid the much-discussed “climate of fear” that persists here.
Ms. Millings’ meetings with VI party leaders also took place entirely behind closed doors. Neither side has offered details of these discussions, after which a new cross-party government materialised on May 5.
Then last week, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced that his new “National Unity Government” had sent a proposal to the UK for the way forward, but it still has not been provided to the public.
Such secrecy must not continue. Currently, the people of the territory are effectively waiting for the UK to decide their fate from 4,000 miles away. This situation is most unfortunate, and it harkens back to a colonial past that should have receded into history long ago.
Surely, the people deserve a chance to understand and participate fully in the discussions on the way forward — especially given the potential suspension of elected democracy here to allow for two years of direct UK rule.
Sir Gary had the right idea. UK and VI leaders alike should take a lesson and ensure transparency at every step.
They are after all considering how to enact a significant number of reforms that largely centre around that very principle.