This month brought good and bad news as Governor John Rankin and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley both reported on the first three months of the ongoing Commission of Inquiry reforms.
The good news first: Much progress has been made, and most deadlines have been met so far. As a result, several important reforms have launched in areas including assistance grants, the audit process, juries, law enforcement and others. Additionally, badly needed reviews, audits and other investigations have gotten under way on schedule, and arrests have followed in some cases.
Now the bad news. First, some deadlines have been missed. This is to be expected to some degree: Given the broad scope of the ambitious reform agenda, minor delays are not necessarily a problem so long as the governor and the premier are on the same page.
But Mr. Rankin and Dr. Wheatley, who had previously presented a united front on the reform effort, are now at odds over several points amid signs that the National Unity Government is resisting a few of the measures it committed to carrying out.
This is troubling, and both leaders must settle their differences straightaway and redouble efforts to collaborate closely and carry out the needed reforms on schedule. Otherwise, the United Kingdom may temporarily suspend the Constitution and implement direct rule to get them done.
This is not to say that the government should cave to unreasonable demands. It shouldn’t. But it should stick closely to the 48 commitments it made in the reform framework agreed with the UK in June. The framework, after all, is a well-conceived list of long-needed measures that auditors, other government watchdogs, and the media have been recommending for decades in many cases.
In some areas, however, the government has fallen short of its commitments. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Register of Interests. The framework promises to make the register public, and a bill introduced in the House of Assembly in July would have done just that. But in a closed-door committee session, HOA members added onerous access restrictions, such as a fee to view the register, a prohibition on taking copies or notes, and a requirement that the registrar of interests provide supervision.
Those requirements are counter to the spirit of a public register, and the governor rightfully criticised them in his review.
The register should be open to the public with no restrictions. It should also be published online, like the corresponding register in the United Kingdom. The possible addition of senior public officers is a topic for further discussion, but it shouldn’t delay the immediate publication of the existing register.
In his review, the governor also claimed that the Cabinet has not followed its framework commitment to avoid tender waivers as much as possible. The premier took issue with that criticism, describing the decisions in question not as tender waivers but as “single-source procurement” carried out in keeping with the new Public Procurement Act. But this excuse is troubling in itself.
Technical terms aside, major contracts must be tendered in keeping with international best practice — and in keeping with the promises in the reform framework. For far too long, the Cabinet has ignored the advice of government auditors and other watchdogs and routinely waived the tender process to the detriment of the taxpayer. As a result, time and time again successive governments have handed plum deals to cronies who then botched the job at hand. This practice must not continue under a new name.
The governor also noted that some reviewers and investigators had reported difficulty obtaining needed documents from public officers. This is unacceptable, of course, but the governor, the premier and the premier’s permanent secretary all expressed confidence that the issue would be resolved quickly now that the new COI Implementation Unit is in place.
We certainly hope so. All public officers would do well to remember that some of their colleagues who previously were accused of withholding documents are now facing police investigations.
The governor also complained in his review about criticism of his appointments to the Constitutional Review Commission. He might have refrained — especially given that previous constitutional committees included no governor appointees. We wish he and the premier would both get past this issue and allow committee members to get to work without a cloud hanging over their heads.
In any case, such issues must not be allowed to derail the urgently needed reforms that have been promised to the people of the Virgin Islands.
Moving forward, all stakeholders must work closely together, and the government must make a good-faith effort to keep all its reform commitments no matter what political pressure is brought to bear by an old guard that has long benefited under the old system. The UK must not be given even the smallest excuse to implement direct rule.
The governor, meanwhile, must remember that he is appointed to represent the VI as well as the UK. He is not an ambassador sent here solely to represent His Majesty’s interests, nor is he meant to function as a police officer armed with the Order in Council that would allow the implementation of direct rule. Accordingly, he must work tirelessly in close communication with the sitting government to make the reforms work.
In a modern democracy, direct rule should not be an option.