“That’s how we’ve always done it.”
This excuse has been bandied about with shocking abandon in the Commission of Inquiry in recent weeks as elected leaders and other senior officials have been grilled about one instance after another of bad governance.
The words, of course, ring hollow. Wrongdoing is not made right simply because it is longstanding or systemic.
But the often-repeated excuse does highlight an important point.
In many cases, the people using it are correct: With few exceptions, the governance failings that have been aired in the COI are not new. Most stem from systemic issues and longstanding bad practices that previously have been exposed by media investigations and audit reports circulated widely in government if not in the public domain.
This fact has important implications for the way forward after the COI.
For one thing, it means that the United Kingdom has had a front-row seat to the territory’s governance failings ever since the Virgin Islands’ legislature was restored more than 70 years ago.
The UK-appointed governor, after all, chairs Cabinet. He also receives all reports from the auditor general, the internal auditor and other watchdogs, and he presumably reads the local newspapers.
Therefore, it would be disingenuous if after the COI report is released the UK were to feign surprise with the governance failings of the past decades.
Indeed, the UK shares responsibility for those failings if only because silence is complicity.
But the UK is not on the stand in the COI. None of the commissioners’ questions so far have probed the UK’s role in much depth or thoroughly examined how the UK-VI relationship itself may have led to the current governance failings that have been aired.
And this is hardly surprising: The UK called the inquiry, and the UK is funding it. Moreover, the commission’s terms of reference don’t explicitly include any examination of the UK’s role in any problems that are discovered.
This is unfortunate. The VI community has been on the edge of its seats in recent months wondering if after the COI the UK will attempt a Turks-and-Caicos-Islands-style takeover by temporarily suspending parts of the Constitution and implementing direct rule for a period.
We fervently hope it won’t come to that. Instead, we believe a collaborative approach is needed, in which both sides acknowledge that the governance failings in the territory are at least in part a product of a government system that still relegates the VI to the role of a modern-day colony.
To make this point is not to absolve VI leaders and public officials from blame. Wrong is wrong, and the COI’s probe of the local government has done a good job of exposing it.
But looking more deeply into the UK-VI partnership is also crucial. Indeed, the territory’s colonial governance system needs to be probed as deeply as the local government has been probed in recent weeks.
If “that’s how we’ve always done it,” the VI needs to understand why. And that requires taking a hard look at the bigger picture.