Progressives United was formed last year by Third District incumbent Julian Fraser, who left the Virgin Islands Party after losing a leadership battle to First District incumbent Andrew Fahie.
A five-term representative, Mr. Fraser is seeking re-election to his seat in a district that includes Sea Cows Bay and its surroundings.
He is a former VIP chairman, but he lost the position to Mr. Fahie following the VIP’s blistering 11-2 loss in the 2015 election.
Mr. Fahie later replaced him as opposition leader in the House of Assembly after then-Governor John Duncan intervened to settle a stalemate between the two.
In August, Mr. Fraser announced the launch of PU, which he called “the result of the search for a solution to a failed leadership which resulted into an economically challenged territory and a people in despair.”
Last month, he introduced three candidates running in districts One, Four and Five. The Fifth District candidate, Dirk Walters, subsequently chose to run at large and was later joined by two more at-large hopefuls, putting the total PU slate at six. Mr. Fraser, one of two candidates on the slate who has served in the legislature, has promised more candidates.
The following interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Claire Shefchik, and transcribed by Zarrin Tasnim Ahmed.
Quickly, what would you say are your top three accomplishments — either as a member of a previous Cabinet or as a member of the opposition — that you feel should make voters choose you?
You know I’m running for the district, I’m not running at large, so my answers will be specific to my district. My top three accomplishments was, first, to be able to subdivide the 114 acres of Nibbs Estate land and have it distributed to first-time homeowners. Another top accomplishment: I was able to make it possible for each resident in the district to get access to their homes free of difficulties. We had to surface the roads, make it comfortable for them to get home. And [the third] accomplishment was what has turned out to be, I think, the number one sporting facility in the territory: the horse race track. For most of the time that I’ve been at office, it’s been constantly improved.
I want to talk a little bit about your former party, the Virgin Islands Party. Would you be willing to talk about the three biggest mistakes the VIP made the last time it was in power?
Not developing the cruise ship pier. Not building the West End ferry terminal. And stopping the hospital contract.
You have extensive experience in elected office, but most of the candidates running with you in Progressives United are inexperienced. Why should we take a chance on those candidates?
If you look at the [VIP], the group that I was with, only one person held elected office. And if you look at [the National Democratic Party], they have four, but they lost how many? Seven? So that tells you a lot about them, doesn’t it? So our chances are as good as any. I think the reason people take a chance with us is because of our signature, which is trust. They have with them an experienced leader. I am the single most experienced person in the race right now.
There have been a lot of threats in the recent years to tourism [and financial services], so there have been calls to diversify the economy. Can you name the three most important things you would accomplish in office to diversify the economy?
Everyone is talking about diversifying the economy. It’s as if no one has stopped to think why the economy is the way it is. The economy is the way it is because of poor management. Our financial services are, yes, under constant scrutiny. But that can be managed. We just have to acknowledge what’s going on around the world and work with it instead of working against it. Financial services has got tons of potential. All the people who are establishing internet companies here in the Virgin Islands are doing multi-million-dollar businesses. But they’re not doing it here. Has anyone ever stopped and tried to figure why? And how can they get business down here with the same companies?
So you don’t think the economy needs to be diversified so much as it needs to take advantage of what is already here?
It needs proper management. For instance, we’ve just infused a substantial amount of capital in our economy after the disaster of Hurricane Irma. All that money that we were given by the insurance companies, what are we doing with it? We [are] just overheating the economy and we’re causing inflation. No one is managing the economy. And no one is telling you exactly what this diversification is going to be. They just keep using the term “diversify.”
Another hot topic in this election is good governance and transparency. In order to accomplish that, there are a number of different things that have been proposed: a public register of interest for legislators; freedom of information; ethics laws; campaign finance reform. Which do you support?
The single most important thing in dealing with transparency, good governance, is corruption in government. Once you get politicians inside government to stop being corrupt, you’ll solve the problem because the public feeds off that. Where does the money go? We have a budget of $320 million. Where does it go? That is the question.
What would you do to stop corruption?
None of my members will indulge in anything that is even seemingly — much less transparently — corrupt. It’s all the rumours that you’re hearing that has got some truth to them. The governor has got a unique position and he is not exercising his powers. The governor got an audit for the high school wall from the auditor general, gives it to the police and doesn’t demand a response. We go into the election with this cloud hanging over our head. The governor is supposed to get a response for that from his commissioner of police. All this smells to high heaven. Who’s watching whom?
When your former party was in government, was anything done to combat corruption?
Not enough. Not enough.
And why was that?
Well, I wasn’t the leader. It’s leadership. People have to get one thing straight: In [this] system of government — Westminster-style parliamentary democracy — the leader is the only one that can exact change. Imagine something: You go to Cabinet, you got five minutes, and if the leader doesn’t want something happening it can’t happen. And if the leader wants it to happen, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can talk, but collective responsibility says you walk out that door and a decision was taken, you are part of that decision.
Is it necessary to pass any legislation to stop corruption?
Absolutely not. We have enough legislation on the board. We have legislation to lock people up already. If you steal you go to jail, but no one is indicting you, so how are you gonna get to jail? You can have all the legislation in the world — people talkiing all this fancy mumbo jumbo that the public wants to hear that can convince the public that something is gonna get done. Nothing is gonna get done. It’s the will of the leader.
What grade would you give the current government on its hurricane recovery efforts: A through F?
C-minus. They did some things.
What did the government do right and what did it do wrong?
They participated in a cleanup. That was good. I applaud them for the cleanup that was done. Albeit it might have been a little bit mismanaged. But what they did wrong was they failed to acknowledge those elements of the community that were absolutely necessary to get our economy back up on its feet, and that’s the small businesses. They have done absolutely nothing to get small businesses back on their feet. And that’s the number one priority of Progressives United.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of money secured so far for the recovery effort. A lot of it is tied up in the Caribbean Development Bank loan and so forth. Why is that money not there and why is that money not being used?
Trust. Nobody trusts the government. The government lies through the lines of their teeth. The government passed legislation to establish the Recovery and Development Agency. According to the high level framework that was established and given to us by the [United Kingdom], all monies — whether they came from loan guarantee or they came from donors or whatever — if it has anything to do with the recovery it must pass through the Recovery and Development Agency board. Here you are with government busy up at the high school, mowing down whatever was left standing, putting roofs on the fire station, putting roofs on police headquarters. That is wrong. They convince the public they want to establish this board that I didn’t vote for. I disagreed. And here they are doing the same thing that you normally see them do. Tell the public one thing, pass laws and then go against laws.
Does that also go for the millions in donations that poured in after Irma? A lot of people say that those have not been accounted for properly. Do you agree with that?
I haven’t seen that so I don’t know. I have yet to know what these millions are. If some of the donors can come forward and say they gave a million, I too would be up and down chasing after where it went.
If you do get elected would you try to chase down that money, see if it can be used?
Absolutely. I am of the view that the Virgin Islands has reached the point where people has to go to jail. I’m of that view.
In 2014, a solid waste strategy was passed that contained provisions for a waste sorting facility, recycling, [a study on] waste to energy. Not a lot of those goals have been met. Why do you think those goals haven’t been met yet and would you do anything to make sure that plan is active?
It sounded good at the time. At the time, there was public sentiment for that kind of activity. But like everything else, you can’t trust government to do much of anything that they say they’re gonna do. Will I do something about it? I have to. The incinerator is in my district. We have a long rate of death from disease — cancer in particular. We have kidney failures, heart disease. This is unacceptable in our community. That’s why in my vision we stated that we will make available up to $1 million each year for research and the implementation of strategy to medicate against these diseases.
To enact this policy on solid waste costs money. Where would you get that money?
The money is here. We don’t manage our economy. Money comes into this country. No one bats an eye to see how it’s spent, who benefits from it. A good example is this recovery agency. They want to get $580 million in the hands of the agency and my only question for them is please, someone trace the dollar for me. When the dollar comes into the territory, whose hands does it go in and when does it leave the country? That’s all I’m asking and no one can tell me. For any economy to survive it has to be managed, and ours is not managed.
You were in the opposition when the government signed a deal with BVI Airways. That was a failure. Taxpayers were on the hook for $7 million. Whose fault was that and where was the failure?
Government. I was on the opposition. The only thing I did on the opposition was ask questions about it. The government actually went into the treasury, took out $7 million and just sent it. The appearance of good intent was there. I don’t know what they were thinking.
If your party’s elected, what steps would you take to get to the bottom of the $7 million?
We’ve got to get that $7 million back, because no one has gone to jail. You can’t just take $7 million of taxpayers’ money and it disappears and no one goes to jail. In what country you ever heard this? I told you before, and believe me if anyone else besides Progressives United takes the government, nothing is going to happen. You mark my words. Between the VIP and NDP is the same difference.
Let’s talk about financial services. Do you agree with the current government’s attitude to not comply with the public register standard until it becomes an international standard?
We are handling financial services in the wrong way. I see it as a gift to the people of the Virgin Islands to enrich themselves. What happened is we’ve squandered that gift by having fun and living large. Now all this heat that’s coming down on our financial services, we are just now beginning to realise that we haven’t benefited from it. We are broke as a people. You can’t find any Virgin Islanders, except for maybe one or two, who actually manage a trust company, let alone own a trust company. I lived in America for as long as you. These are countries that make sure that their people become a part of anything that’s happening. We don’t even service the trust companies as far as being employees. Very few people work there. Most of our people work in government. And this fighting with the UK about the beneficial ownership register. What is the industry telling the government that I’m not hearing? Is the industry telling the government “Don’t do it?”
Moving on to the proposed airport runway expansion. Do you support an expansion?
Does it need to be done now?
It should be done immediately.
Why do you feel that way?
Let’s go 20 years back. We break ground on the expansion of the terminal at the airport. And I said to the minister, “Why don’t you all go for an airport with a runway that can bring passengers from the United States to the Virgin Islands at one time?” His response to me was, “Frequency.” He wanted to get ten flights a day — give people more options — [rather] than having one flight a day out to the United States. So San Juan was buzzing at the time. It was a hub. All flights came into San Juan, and American Eagle was coming over here with ten flights a day. Twenty years ago I recognised that to get this here. I myself coming from the United States when I was living there, coming to Tortola, went through that hassle. And I didn’t like it. What we gonna do? Talk about it 20 years from now? Something that we can solve and get it out of the way?
Would you consider a public-private partnership for the expansion?
I have to see it.
With the proposed Chinese Communications Construction Company?
Why are you against making a deal with the Chinese?
The Chinese have a terrible record and I know what their objective is. It’s not to help us.
Will [the runway expansion] create mass tourism?
I don’t think it’s going to bring a greater frequency of planes. When you deal with a hub like San Juan, that’s when we have the frequency. In this scenario you’re not going to get that many flights a day. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get two or three flights to the United States a day.
You don’t think that’s going to bring mass tourism that the territory can’t handle?
No. It’s going to be manageable.
You wouldn’t be in favour of a mass increase of tourists?
No. Not in favour of that.
Do you think the cruise ships are already too much to handle?
Absolutely. Three ships a day? Look around you. You live here and you can’t find places to go. Where does 8,000 people find places to go? It’s like madness.
Would you be in favour of cutting back on the number of cruise ships?
I don’t think it’s a matter of cutting back. There’s nothing to cut back really. I think some of these ships come on the fly. They are going to St. Thomas and they see cruise ships in the harbour here and they come over. It’s madness. Question is: Where is the money going? Are they making money? Is the government making money from the cruise ships?
If the government is making money from the cruise ships, that’s a good thing?
It depends what the tradeoff is. Anyone would agree three ships a day is just too much for the resources that we have.
Do you consider climate change a major threat to the territory?
The politically correct answer is yes and I’ll leave it there.
In 2012 Cabinet adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Policy. At lot of the goals in it — including [wetland] protection, [environmental] legislation, an updated building code, and physical planning — weren’t enacted. Should they be enacted? What should happen now?
The reason they weren’t enacted is because it was just supposed to be a paper. We have a very assertive, ambitious minister responsible for the environment. He’s absolutely correct in bringing the country up to speed in what’s taking place in the rest of the world. And as far as putting legislation on the books, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s legislation on the books. Anyone expecting to see that come into fruition wasn’t being realistic.
Would you push to get any of those goals met?
The ones that are necessary. I don’t know which ones.
There’s the national development plan, wetlands protection, updated building code, planning regulations. Which one of those sounds like something you would pursue?
Planning regulations. Wetland protection? I think our wetlands are protected already. It’s only being abused. We need to eliminate the abuse. The building code? It doesn’t hurt to get them to implement it. It’s a small act. We’ve got an environmental tax as it is right now. Does anyone check to find out where that money goes and how is it spent?
The Beacon did look into that, and apparently it’s just sitting there.
Government at work, huh?
How do you envision the relationship of the Virgin Islands with the United Kingdom moving forward? Is there anything that needs to be changed?
Yes. The Virgin Islands needs to grow up and to take more responsibility for its affairs. Right now where we sit, we want to have the best of both worlds. Have you ever seen anyone with two passports? It’s stupid. Why does the British government indulge in giving Virgin Islanders two passports when one passport can get you every place you want to go? C’mon. We need to grow up and start taking more responsibility for our own future. But again, one of the reasons we don’t get that is because they don’t trust us.
Should we have a constitutional review?
We are due for one now. It should have been done 2017 because the last one was done in 2007. I think ten years is more than enough time to have a review.
What specifically should happen in that review?
I think it’s time that the local government has control of the public service. It should have control of security. After all these years, are we maturing? All the other Caribbean countries are independent already. The little things we’re asking for, all the other countries have had for 50 years already. And we’re still toying around with whether we should have this or have that.
Should the Virgin Islands become an independent country?
Once we start preparing for it. We haven’t started preparing for it. That’s a problem. Anyone who calls for independence at this time really doesn’t know where the people stand. That’s a question that I shouldn’t be answering. The people should answer that.
What happens to this territory when Brexit happens with a deal or no deal?
Brexit will be good for the BVI because now the British government will pay more attention to us.
You’re not afraid of the potential Brexit deal?
I think Brexit means exactly what it says: break away. Britain is a country, for crying out loud. It’s one of the five members of the Security Council. How many countries can boast that? English language is one of the United Nations’ official languages. Why is the British wrapping themselves with the French and the German and all these different peoples and diminishing its glory, its power?
Moving on to education: A lot of people think the schools have gotten shortchanged, especially with the hurricane recovery. If your party were to get in, what would you do?
It starts with the minister. The minister of education has to come down to earth and understand that your responsibility is education. If you have a minister who, at one moment, takes his focus off education and puts it on anything else, he’s not doing his job. Prison? Prison has no business with the Ministry of Education. Community college? Over and beyond the minister of education. I’ll tell you why: HLSCC is never properly budgeted for and it’s always looking for finances, resources on the fly. Only the minister of finance, who’s the premier, can deal with it. Putting it in the hands of the minister of education is giving him power. But he can’t help them and he can’t help the school system. We need to establish our own standards for education. We’ve been around long enough to have our own standards. We should be not using other people’s material. We can do it ourselves.
[What] do you think [about] the Elmore Stoutt High School rebuild that has gotten pushed back and pushed back. Why is that and what would you do?
That happened out of a lack of focus, a lack of interest. Plain and simple. Government did not make it a priority. It’s a shame what’s happening. A year and five months, and just a few days before elections they got an excavator and trucks just dragging the stuff out. Some of those trucks should have been salvaged. Again, I blame the British government. The British government cannot have one foot in and one foot out.
What do you think the British government should have done?
Tell the government, “I see what you’re doing. You’re wasting money. Stop it. You can’t do that.” For the governor to sit there and do nothing and say nothing, it seems to me as if he agrees with what’s going on, and what’s going on is fraud.
What needs to be improved in terms of health care?
The government services [are] not capable of handling all the needs of the people. We need to forge proper associations overseas with different health care providers and make sure that we get our people to those facilities in time in order to get the treatment that they need. That should be the responsibility of the government. A country like ours, with a per capita income of $35,000, should be able to take care of its citizens.
Water and sewerage has been a perennial issue for the territory. East End and Long Look don’t have a sewerage system [despite stalled efforts] stretching back to when you were in government. Is that a priority now, as well as sewerage in general?
The solutions are at my fingertips. When I was in government, remember, that sewage treatment plant that is at Paraquita Bay is part of a deal that we made. You see, the sewage treatment plant is erected. It’s been there for years now waiting for sewage. This government has been in office for eight years and they can’t get the piping for the sewage up in Long Look to the sewage treatment plant. That’s simple. But it’s all tied up in politics. Again, big donors dictate who should get what project and who shouldn’t get it.
You think some kind of private interest is controlling this?
It has a lot to do with it. Remember the government took $8 million from [the EE/LL sewerage] project and put in the cruise ship pier. Why do you think they did that? You think they needed the money at the cruise ship pier? Or is it because they couldn’t move forward with the project and to not have the money to sit there — well, let’s use it down here. Who knows? All we know is for eight years they haven’t been able to do that. And I guarantee you in eight months, I can do it.
Let’s get to water.
Water is a major problem in our territory, and [the problem] is unnecessary. The government has a water production plant at Bar Bay. That plant is supposed to send water to a reservoir in Hodges Creek. The hurricane destroyed the reservoir at Hodges Creek and the Bar Bay plant is almost useless. So what they are doing? Using the plant at Paraquita Bay. So you see the government has its priorities misplaced and mixed up. Here we are in Brewers Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Diamond Hill, [and] can’t get water. Water has been rationed to us. That’s unacceptable. Getting back to sewerage again. The plant at Ghut Point, that again, [was] a part of that deal. [Biwater] put that plant in. They operated it for one year before turning it over to the government with the understanding that the government would understudy them and take it over. Hurricane Irma came, does some damage to the plant, and that plant has been out of commission ever since. A year and five months — sewage flowing in the streets of Road Town. Water that I worked so hard to stop because it’s coming down in my district. And nobody is doing anything.
Say your party gets into office, what is the first thing you would do to solve these water problems?
That solution is so simple: I don’t even need to mention what I’m going to do. I’m going to fix it! Eight months, ten months: That’s finished.
Roads are a perennial issue too. How do you monitor that road system to make sure that they last when you fix them?
We need to redevelop our road system, and this time do it properly. Do it with trained people, people with experience. Our roads must have proper drainage. And we have turned a blind eye to utility companies who bury cables under the roads. They bury them in such a way that you can’t put culverts under the roads to drain the water.
The VI finishes very low on the list in terms of slow internet. [How do you] plan to get back on track?
I’m the guy who goes out and tells the telecom companies to make sure that this whole thing stops. These things are not going to happen unless government makes it happen. The government is supposed to look out for people, not necessarily businesses, but people first. Consumers. The speeds are there, but you can’t afford it. We have to tell the communications company. They will be ordered to do their job. You won’t have any problem with me when it comes to the Internet. That’s the number one priority.
Some people have said the government’s policy of not awarding residency for 20 years is too long. Do you think it’s too long? Would you change that?
Hmm. When someone tell you they live in a country for 20 years, that’s a long time. That’s a lifetime. There should be something that they can hold on to. And residency is one of those things. We have to have a policy in place that this is what you can expect after X amount of years.
That 20-year requirement: You don’t think it’s too long or too short?
I think they should be eligible after 20 years. No one should be here after 20 years and not get some form of status.
Rent [and cost of living] has obviously kind of skyrocketed after Hurricane Irma. How do you combat that?
Look around the Virgin Islands. You notice two things. Prices are lower on St.Thomas. You rationalise that by saying they are coming out of America, and that’s an American territory so the United States tends to favour its own. It gets things there cheaper than it gets things here. Then you look at St. Maarten. And people are shocked. To buy things like meat and chicken and clothing, what’s the explanation for that? St. Maarten is not America. And last time I checked, St. Maarten is farther from the United States than Tortola, so what is it that we’re doing wrong? I’ve got a pretty good idea of what we’re doing wrong, and those are the things that Progressives United will be dealing with. Turning a blind eye for as long as we have is part of corruption.
I’ve reached the end of my questions, but —
How come you don’t talk about all the other things that take place around the race? You’re not talking about illegal substances, human trafficking, all that kind of stuff. But it’s not a popular question.
If you want to talk about it, go for it. I want to hear about anything else you think is important.
I think it’s unfortunate that we have the kind of crimes that we have. It’s also unfortunate that people try to turn a blind eye and rationalise what’s happening. I could remember when I was living in America. Without question, New York City was the murder capital of the world. Today, I can tell anyone that the murder rate per capita in New York City is lower than it is here in the Virgin Islands. That’s because someone had the will to deal with the problem of crime. Until we find the will here in the BVI, these sporadic shootings that we have are going to continue and they’re going to get worse.
I’m an advocate for police officers being armed. It’s unfair to send a police officer in danger of his life. What we have right now is after the incident takes place, a police officer shows up after the perpetrator have ample time to disappear. This is not on the police officers.
So our streets should be patrolled 24/7. I remember one of the most comforting things I used to have at night walking home is to see the patrol car pass by. You know that he is in the neighbourhood and they’re not far away, and that feels good. We used to have a police aircraft. We have lost that aircraft now for more than 10 years and nobody is saying anything about it. If we were able to do that in 2000, we should be able to do more than one in 2019. We should have two. But we have none and nobody is saying anything about it.