Progressive Virgin Islands Movement leader Ronnie Skelton speaks during a recent rally. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

This interview is one of three conducted with party leaders ahead of the 2023 general elections. To read the others, click here.

The Progressive Virgin Islands Movement was born in late 2018 when legislators Ronnie Skelton and Mitch Turnbull publicly broke rank with the governing National Democratic Party, which Mr. Skelton helped found in the late 1990s.

The PVIM ran seven candidates in 2019, but Mr. Turnbull was the only one who won a seat.

This year, members considered reuniting with the NDP, but ultimately decided against it. Instead, the PVIM is fielding nine of its own candidates: four at-large and the rest in districts One, Two, Four, Five and Nine.

The following interview with Mr. Skelton was conducted, condensed and edited by Dana Kampa.


What are three accomplishments of your party’s record that you feel should earn voters’ support?

PVIM is a new party that started back in 2019. We put up about eight candidates, but only one was elected. We were new — the election was about three months out [when the party was formed]. We never had the real opportunity to tell people what we stood for. What we did was tell people what the leader’s accomplishment was while he was a member of the other party. If you believe in the simple principles of letting your work speak for you, then we thought there would not have been a problem. But the party split. Once you do that, the third party has a better chance of winning, and they won overwhelmingly. This is the first year, then, that a full term has passed since the split. So there’s been a bit more time for the parties to get established? People didn’t know who the members were and what they stood for, and we have quite a good list of members who have been nominated. They all have major track records in various areas, serving in both the public sector and the private sector.


Do you agree with the reform measures codified and promised in the framework for the implementation of the Commission on Inquiry recommendations? Are there any reforms included with which you disagree? If your party is elected to government, would you continue to progress those reforms as quickly as possible?

The majority of the recommendations that were listed in this report are things that we should have done. These things are important, not just for your protection, but for the protection of whoever is coming after you. It’s for the protection of the country and the citizens, so that you can trust us to be there, and to use resources in an efficient and responsible way.

A lot of the recommendations, in my mind, we should have done them. We shouldn’t have had to wait for people to come do them for us.

There was only one recommendation I think should not have been subject to a COI report, and that is the amendment to our Constitution. The people should decide when they have a constitutional review.


The Progressive Virgin Islands Movement won one seat in the 2019 election after fielding seven candidates, but this year it is back with nine. Above, Mitch Turnbull, the party’s only incumbent, speaks at a recent rally. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)


Is there anything that you found surprising, then, in the COI report?

The only thing is that I didn’t like the antics of it, what I saw on the screen. Those of us that have lived 60 years plus, we didn’t like that. It put us back in the days of colonialism. I know you can blame us for it because our leaders that appointed them called for it to be a public spectacle. What happened was the humiliation of all our leaders. If you destroy the leaders of our country, you’re only heading for chaos after.


Most of the most serious findings in the COI report were already detailed in reports from the auditor general, internal auditor, and other sources over the past 15 years. Why haven’t these changes been implemented sooner? What was the main difficulty?

It takes the majority to implement it. There may be one or two or three people willing to do that. But if they don’t have the support to do it, it can’t be implemented. That’s the democratic process that we have elected to be under. You can go with all good intentions if you intend to serve, but if people don’t want it, they don’t want it. I think there was not an appetite for some of this stuff. But in my mind, the majority of them needed to be done.


Do you believe the COI had any value for the territory?

There was some value, because it forced us to do the things that needed to be done, since we weren’t able to do it of our own free will. I believe in life there are good things and bad things in everything. It is which one is displayed more openly that you feel the most. The recommendations that were made should have been done already.


Are you satisfied with the progress on the reforms? What would you do differently?

The intricacies of it, I really don’t know, because we may be focusing on one part: the ministerial responsibilities. But in the COI report, the Governor’s Group has some work to do too. What are they doing to make sure those things happen?


So would you want to work closely with the governor on the reforms?

In the interest of the country, I will. Where we differ, we differ, but we will do so respectfully.


One of the reforms was making the Register of Interests public and that was done, but with some strict restrictions on viewing it. Copies can’t be made, there’s a high fee, and supervision is required. The governor has asked that the government reconsider these restrictions and make the register fully public. Would you support lifting those restrictions? If not, which ones do you support?

Not all the restrictions, because some of the restrictions are reasonable. For example, I know it happens in some other Caribbean islands, where people go and see what elected officials’ net worth is and kidnap your family, your children. There’s good and bad in everything. It’s just that we need to be reasonable in our approach.

In my life, I have no problem making what I have public, because I am not going into government to enrich myself or my family. I don’t know if there are other people that want to do that. The circumstances of the last government, where the premier got arrested, causes some concern. To anybody who wants to call here home, that was concerning to us.

As for making [the register] public, there are too many restrictions. But there should be some rules for the people who are accessing it. If you’re accessing it for malicious purposes, they should be able to sue. But if you’re just accessing it to report on something, where there is a case when somebody is accused of doing something or getting [questionable] assets, those are things I don’t have a problem with. I have a problem with it if people take it and just try to slander people.

Supporters cheer as the Progressive Virgin Islands Party holds its official candidate launch. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)


Would you push for the territory to pursue independence, maintain the current political arrangement or take some other way forward? What specifically would you aim to do in the next four years to further that goal?

We are in a bad place. We have to correct the problems that we have before us. We have to get the economy moving, create jobs — that’s going to take more than four years. For I to tell you that we are going to be pursuing an independence agenda within these four years: I’ll tell you, it isn’t happening in four years. I will try to get us elected officials to total internal self-government and get back to where we were and move forward a bit more in a responsible way, building institutions. People will get to independence and won’t know they’re there. That’s the kind of futuristic thinking I believe is needed.

Whenever people hear about independence, they look at some of the other Caribbean islands: Things are happening with independence, and they get scared. It calls for education from very early on, so people understand their government and who makes decisions. If elected, I will be working to get all the authority that we had back. Independence is going to take at least 10 years.


Would you want to hold a public referendum?

Independence is the people’s decision. It’s not a PVIM decision. If you make the decision to discuss it, then you need to go to the people and get the people’s decision. I know if you go to the people right now, you’re not going to get it, because we have not acted as responsibly as we should. They need to see that kind of goodwill built back up in elected officials so that they could feel comfortable again.


At the end of the ongoing constitutional review, what specifically would you like to see changed or included in the Constitution?

I was a member of the Constitutional Review Committee, and I was not there to impose my views. I was there to listen to the people’s views, and I can’t disagree with some of the views. For example, they feel that whoever is running to be the premier of the country should be elected at large. I don’t disagree with that view. They also want term limits, whether for two or three terms or something else. They’re also recommending a recall system. If you’re not comfortable with your representative, then you can recall them, but not by a simple majority. Maybe a two-thirds majority. There were good recommendations coming out of that.


Also in light of the ongoing constitutional review, how do you think the VI should go about defining belongership and residency? How long do you believe someone should live in the territory to qualify?

Belongership, for a small society like ours, is a very complex situation. We all believe that if you’re born here, there should be a procedure to get you to belongership. What governs that now is the British Nationality Act. People are confused on what we can do as elected officials and as a country, versus getting a passport. Passports are travel documents, and if you need them you have to fulfil the British requirements. It’s not the local requirements. Now, we can give you belongership — tell you to vote, tell you to buy land, reduce stamp duty — and that requires that you live and work in the country. We can do the things that we can do, but people want to go a bit further than that, and we can’t until we become a country.


Do you believe the territory is shifting toward large-scale tourism with plans to bring in more cruise ships, provide direct mainland US flights, and potentially expand the Beef Island airport runway? Do you believe this is the right direction for the sector? Is the territory’s infrastructure prepared to handle increased demand?

One of the first things we’re going to ask for when we get there is a situation report on each of these major sectors: tourism, agriculture, the airport. Let us get a no-nonsense, honest, up-to-date report on these things and what needs to be done to get them moving.

When we built the cruise ship pier, it was for us to get the tourism for taxi drivers and everyone. If you don’t fix the roads, if you don’t make the place safer for traversing over the hills and such, then bringing more ships is going to be hard now. Until those things are fixed, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It is true the taxi drivers and tour operators have done a good job of showing the tourists our shores. They need to continue, and we need to put more into it. We will consult with the taxi drivers on how we can make the destination more attractive.

Our bread and butter was overnight guests. We need to be able to turn some of the cruise passengers into overnight guests, because then your restaurants, hotels, car renters, taxi drivers [will benefit]. There needs to be some level of balance.

We need to make the roads safer and clean up the place. Instead of trying to get rid of biowaste, we need to use it in a more deliberate way in farming. Instead of carting it to the incinerator, we need to get people to understand how to use it, even in backyards to grow vegetables.


How would you work to mitigate the rising cost of living for residents?

Expand the economy. That’s the quickest way. There should be some low-hanging fruits to expand the economy and get people creating businesses. You have to create new entrepreneurs, especially in the young people. If we do that, you’re basically creating jobs. But there will always be a sector that will be at the bottom of the salary structure. How do we help those people to get more disposable income? That would be one of our immediate studies.


The Climate Change Adaptation Policy was adopted in 2012. It included a wide variety of promises including wetlands protection, environmental legislation, updated building codes, and more. Now we’re here, more than 10 years later, and many of those goals have not been met. Why? Do you agree with those goals that have been laid out, and what should we do moving forward?

Back then, there was a committee set up, the Climate Change Trust Fund Committee, and the last government dismantled it. I understand that committee is getting back up and running. There were quite a bit of funds in it. We, being a small country, will need small portions to implement the recommendations.

It is true the government will have to put some into the pot. But if we don’t protect our wetlands, we’re going to destroy all our beaches. We are a hilly country, and we build houses up in the hills and we cut the foundation. The runoff is going straight back into the ocean and destroying the corals and fishing grounds. There is quite a lot of work to be done there.

Global warming is causing us some concern. We are not responsible for a lot of the things happening with global warming, but we are on the frontline fighting the result of it. We don’t know how long it will take to happen, but we have to prepare for it.


Multiple governments have refused to access the £300 million loan guarantee from the United Kingdom to facilitate hurricane recovery projects, and many of those projects have been delayed, including school repairs, the Halls of Justice, the West End ferry terminal, the National Emergency Operations Centre, derelict boat removal, the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex, and others. Was it a mistake to refuse the loan guarantee?

I don’t know the government’s reasons for not taking it. I believe in borrowing what can be used to fix the most difficult things — and revenue-generating projects.

A National Integrated Development Plan is so important, because governments after governments continue to shift things without thinking about what they’re doing.


You’ve mentioned borrowing to support these projects. Do you have specific initial steps to take to start looking at different loan options? How would you plan to fund these projects?

I would rely on my financial people, both inside and outside of government, to guide us.


Do you support the planned extension of the Beef Island airport runway, and by when?

I support the extension of the runway. Within the first three months of election, we should be able to report back to the people on our findings and hear any objections or recommendations.


Many roads are in terrible shape across the territory. Being specific as possible, how would you go about fixing them, and how would you fund it?

Based on my experience with the RDA and general experience, I would try to fix as many of the bad parts as possible. Fix them to the RDA standard, which comes from the CDB requirements. In a lot of these places, because of tourism, we need to make sure the guardrails are put in place. For the bad parts to get moving, we’ll borrow the money to do so. You can’t rely on your recurrent revenue to do some of this stuff. We probably need to leverage our recurrent revenue over the next 10 years or so to get our country back on sensible footing. We spend quite a lot every year, and a lot of it has to do with the operation of the government. Whatever is remaining, we need to leverage it.


East End/Long Look still doesn’t have a sewerage system after decades of promises. What main challenges have held up progress?

If that was subject to a National Integrated Development Plan, I think the government would have gone and fixed it. But every time our government changes, they go and redesign. The pipes that run to the sewage plant were built. What is stopping us from at least collecting half of the sewage in East End/Long Look right now? The Water and Sewerage Department needs to be responsible for the operation. With huge capital works, we need to stop playing piecemeal with it and get it fixed before it starts causing health issues. During our last administration, we did quite a bit of work in Road Town, with the Burt Point plant coming online. But then the hurricane came and destroyed it.


The incinerator in Pockwood Pond appears to still be offline, resulting in frequent fires in the landfill behind it. What needs to be done to bring it back online? How would you finance it, and by when?

I really don’t know what the problem is. When we were there in 2003 to 2007, we bought an incinerator, and we were supposed to buy another incinerator. If one was down for maintenance, one could be running. We were supposed to repair the old one. We were fired, and the new government came in. The incinerator was already paid for, at least the deposit. By the time they started to follow through, it was late. We came to find the company we bought it from had a problem.

We need to work on incineration. But the RDA’s recommendations were made for the Pockwood Pond landfill situation in a nice, comprehensive plan, and it involved retaining some land; making arrangements with the landowners to swap some land to create a landfill for the debris, the ashes from the incinerator; creating another mountain; and revegetating the hillside. The plan seemed doable and workable.


What do you see as the future of the RDA then?

I doubt I’m biased, but it needs to continue to exist. Probably not in the RDA form, but as the Virgin Islands Development Agency.


The House of Assembly passed a solid waste strategy in 2014, but most of the policy’s goals were not met. They were revisited in a new strategy circulated in draft last year, but much remains to be done. Can you explain why these measures were not carried out yet as promised? If you are elected, can the public expect this policy to be revisited?

It was to reduce the waste stream and get plastics, metals, and glass out of the stream that block up the incinerator. All the construction waste was not supposed to come to the incinerator also. One other thing was to get rid of all the unsightly bins, do a lot more house-to-house pickup, and encourage people to separate their garbage at home. It calls for extensive education.


The 2014 plan estimated a cost of $20 million to implement the whole plan. Where would the funding come from for that?

That’s over a long period of time.


Do you believe the government should assume responsibility for the costs and labour of running a recycling programme in the territory?

I don’t think we should assume that, but we should contribute in a meaningful way.


Slow internet speeds are another common issue. What would you do to help speed up internet territory-wide?

That’s been a vexing question for quite a long time. We have three main carriers. They all promise high internet speeds, but people are still complaining that they’re not getting it. They complain to the carriers, and it seems people are still complaining. We have to ask the carriers what’s going on. I know they’ll have reasons why what’s happening is happening, but we need the experts to tell us what can be done to either fix this stuff or stop wasting our time. Something is wrong.


The election has raised questions about the House of Assembly’s unanimous decision in 2021 to greatly increase their retirement benefits so they get paid their salary for multiple years after leaving office. Obviously, this has been a big issue raised on the campaign trail. Would you reverse that decision?

The amendment needs to be repealed.


Freedom-of-information legislation has been promised by successive governments for more than 15 years. Why do you believe it hasn’t been passed yet? Do you support it, and if so, what would you do to push it through if elected?

Are you asking for Cabinet or for the ministries? If you’re asking for freedom of information just for ministerial positions, I think that is wrong. But if you’re asking for freedom of information for the whole system, I don’t have an issue.


And did you have a timeline for it coming to the House?

I understand there is a draft. We’ll look at it, see what it is, and see what happens.


Do you support campaign finance reform resulting in a law that requires transparency about who is funding political parties? Why hasn’t it been passed yet? If you support it, what would you do to push it through?

I believe in some level of reform. All of this has to be public. It’s a small country, and that has its benefits and drawbacks. I know people sometimes want this information, but why do you want it? I don’t mean newspapers alone, I’m talking about everybody. It’s a complex thing for a small society. People can be put at risk, because if you support one party over the other and they didn’t win, you can have problems. I’m not against it, but it needs to be properly thought out. If you’re giving me funding and have any strings attached to it, I don’t want your money. But that’s me.


The premier recently proposed holding a public referendum on same-sex marriage. If elected, would you push for the referendum? By when?

I’m a married man, married to a woman, so I have my own view based on my belief. But society is changing, and this is the only way to get the majority of people to make a decision on what you should do in these circumstances. Gambling should have been one of them. These things need to be subject to a referendum.


Are there any other referendums you would like to see held in the next few years?

Any area that is going to go contrary to the cultural and historic norms of our country should be subject to something like that.


As noted by teachers and the current minister, students throughout the territory are dealing with serious challenges, particularly with extreme bullying. What action would you take to better support and protect them?

When you look at America, the gun violence is troubling. Before it gets to us, should we not be more careful with schools? Getting educators and people who are there day to day to give us some guidance on what can be done to eliminate some of the possible future threats. It needs to be not just for talking’s sake, but for solutions.


Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro has said her ministry conducted a widespread review of schools’ needs in the territory. Would you utilise this research or conduct your own study? How would you support this work?

If a study is already done in any area, we will look at it. We wouldn’t want to go reinventing the wheel.


Considering threats to the sustainability of tourism and the financial services, there have been calls to diversify the economy for years. Do you agree that diversification is necessary? If so, what areas do you consider most important to support?

Having the country develop a level of reserves will enable it to get through difficult periods. For example, during the 2017 hurricanes and even the pandemic, our food supply was in question, and that says we need to produce more of what we consume here locally.


Industry members in the fishing sector have long complained of overly complicated, expensive permitting systems that leave them at a disadvantage compared to neighbouring countries. What action would you take to address this?

We need to create a one-stop shop.


The National Health Insurance system is not financially self-supporting. What would you do to fix it?

I know there is a report we won’t be able to see until we get in. But based on my knowledge, we understand that if you want everyone to be covered and cover pre-existing conditions, it has to be based on solidarity. I listened to the other side talk about private health insurance, but if that could solve our problem, why wasn’t it done? You’ll be back to the same place you were before, where 65 percent of your people won’t be insured, and it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot more money. Here, you have solidarity and you’re sharing. The government has a way of not paying its bills, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems. It’s not just this government.


Leading up to the election, your party had talks with the NDP regarding reuniting. What happened?

I personally spoke to many independent candidates, the Virgin Islands Party, the National Democratic Party, and Progressives United. We all had discussions about the best way to approach this election and manage the affairs of our country. The conversations were very enlightening.


Could you expand on the decision to have you replace Mitch Turnbull as the leader of the party going into the election?

Mitch is a young man I have full confidence in and appreciation for. Sometimes I call him my right-hand person, and he relies on me to guide him. I have confidence he will do the things that are right. But there were a number of people who wanted me to at least try to see if I can help. If I try and don’t succeed, I don’t have any problem. If I don’t try and things go terribly wrong, then I have myself to blame. That was the only reason. We all have a role to play.


As many candidates have already noted, the territory has been through a lot in recent years. Briefly, what do you believe makes your party the best to lead the VI forward?

The people I have on my side, we have the experience and skillset. We have lawyers, engineers, people with years under their political belts. I have about 16 years. We have young people. We have a good cadre of people who can hit the ground running and make frank decisions to move the country forward.


What else haven’t we covered that you believe it is important for voters to know before heading to the polls?

That they should vote for the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement if they want to get from the bad place the country has been to a brighter future.