Residents packed the auditorium of the Multi-purpose Sports Complex to witness the swearing-in of the members of the fifth House of Assembly last Thursday. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

More than 300 people gathered in the Multi-purpose Sports Complex last Thursday to witness the first sitting of the new House of Assembly.

During the proceeding, the members were sworn in, the opposition announced its plan to form a shadow cabinet, and elected representatives stood individually to thank their supporters and make big promises for the future.

But the first order business was choosing a speaker.

Corine George-Massicote retained the position after receiving a unanimous vote from elected officials, while political freshman and opposition member Stacy “Buddha” Mather secured the seat of deputy speaker.

But Mr. Mather’s election was not as smooth as Ms. George-Massicote’s.

Deputy speaker question

After taking an oath, Ms. George-Massicote opened the floor to Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who at first moved to nominate Junior Minister of Culture and Tourism Luce Hodge-Smith as deputy speaker. Deputy Premier Lorna Smith seconded the motion, but Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton took issue with it.

“Section 69 (3) of the Constitution says that anyone who holds a ministerial position can’t be deputy speaker,” Mr. Skelton said.

Instead, he moved to nominate Mr. Mather (R-at large), and his opposition colleague Mitch Turnbull (R-D2) seconded the motion. Opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) backed Mr. Skelton’s comment by explaining that junior ministers fall into the same category as all other ministers, who are prohibited from serving as deputy speaker.

The premier, however, pushed back.

“The Constitution is clear: As long as the member is not a member of Cabinet, [he or she] can be elected as the deputy speaker,” Dr. Wheatley said. “I’m asking that we proceed with the vote.”

At that point, Ms. George-Massicote called a brief recess to discuss the issue. When the members returned, Dr. Wheatley corrected himself.

Apparently, he had overlooked the 2015 constitutional amendment that created the two junior minister positions.

“Upon review, it is indeed correct that section 69 (5) applies junior ministers as ministers in the 2015 amendment to the Constitution,” he said. “We therefore withdraw our nominee, Honourable Luce Hodge-Smith, and will support the nominee, Honourable Stacy Mather.”

Members’ speeches

Mr. Mather was subsequently sworn in, followed by the rest of the HOA in alphabetical order. When HOA members were invited to make statements, Mr. Mather challenged the government and the opposition to “better communicate” and to properly inform the public.

“We are not an elite group, but rather the servants of the Virgin Islands,” he said.

Other members took the opportunity to thank their families and other supporters for voting them into office while some — like opposition member Myron Walwyn (R-D6) and Junior Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr. Karl Dawson (R-D1) — addressed infrastructure issues, the need for improved self-governance, and new areas for economic development.

Shadow cabinet

Mr. Skelton used his turn to announce that the opposition had created “shadow subject ministers” in a shadow cabinet.

“In other words, we take the portfolio of the five ministers and we share them among the six of us and we’ll be focused on those topics,” he said. “We are here to do things that are good and right for our country.”

Mr. Fraser spoke about the government’s responsibility to carry out its duties, and he complained that the HOA currently “doesn’t function the way it should.”

“I’ve never seen an opposition as potent as the one we have here today,” he added. “Our leader of the opposition, this is his fifth term. The member for the Eighth is going into his fourth term.”

Mr. Fraser is the longest-serving incumbent, with six consecutive terms under his belt.

The premier said he looks forward to working with opposition members to “build up the [Virgin Islands] together.”

“I believe without a shadow of a doubt that our best days are yet ahead,” he said. “But we must trust our principles. We must be able to ensure that our egos don’t overrule our responsibility to the people of the Virgin Islands; that we learn how to work together; that when we do not agree we fight for agreement and we fight for consensus, and that even when we do disagree, we don’t destroy the unity within this House, because indeed we have a responsibility to govern.”