The new opposition members presented a united front while making their first public appearance together on April 27 during a press conference.
Expressing collective frustration, they gave a blow-by-blow account of how Lorna Smith won a seat in the House of Assembly running as an at-large candidate on the National Democratic Party ticket and then decided to join forces with the Virgin Islands Party to create the majority needed to form a government. NDP Leader Marlon Penn said his party was blindsided by the move, with Ms. Smith “pulling the rug” out from under the NDP as it was negotiating with the Progressive VI Movement and Progressives United in hopes of establishing a coalition.
Ms. Smith, however, told a different story in multiple interviews in recent days, saying she wasn’t happy with the NDP’s plan to form a coalition government with District Three representative Julian Fraser as premier and that she therefore made the decision to form an “alliance” with the VIP on her own.
Ms. Smith told JTV that she originally ran as an independent because she wanted to hear the thoughts and hopes of residents “without a brand” and she had always considered herself an “independent thinker.”
“I decided, as I said before, that I could not be a success on my own, and so I decided to join the National Democratic Party,” she said.
She did, however, note her appreciation of the aspirations of the NDP, which her husband Dr. Orlando Smith helped found and led for more than 20 years until his retirement in 2019.
The acrimony arose after the election results revealed that no party won a majority on Polling Day. The VIP had six winners, and the remaining three parties had seven, opening the door to a coalition government.
That night, closed-door negotiations got under way between the seven non-VIP members, who included the PVIM’s Ronnie Skelton, Mitch Turnbull and Stacy “Buddha” Mather; the NDP’s Mr. Penn, Ms. Smith and Myron Walwyn; and Mr. Fraser, the PU’s only candidate.
During those negotiations, Ms. Smith said, she proposed forming an “alliance” between the NDP and VIP, but she was “told in no uncertain terms that would not fly. It was not acceptable.”
Then in late-night meetings with the NDP, PVIM and PU leaders, it became apparent that Mr. Fraser would serve as premier in the planned coalition, she said.
“I wasn’t very happy with the conclusion of the evening, but that was the decision,” she said, claiming she wasn’t involved in further discussions with the PVIM early the following morning.
“I campaigned on putting the people of the BVI first, getting the best for this country, and moving the country forward. I was invited to form an alliance with the Virgin Islands Party, and so I accepted that invitation.”
In recounting the negotiations on April 27, Mr. Fraser appeared to back up Ms. Smith’s account, making clear that he was campaigning to serve as premier in whichever alliance formed the government.
Considering that the NDP and PVIM had each netted three candidates and the VIP had six total, he was in a position to play kingmaker, giving either group the majority.
Mr. Fraser explained during the press conference that he had given preference to the NDP and PVIM, and he planned to exhaust all options before considering forming a government with the VIP, again with the stipulation that he must be premier.
Mr. Fraser described the late-night post-election talks as “amicable,” and he and other opposition members at the press conference said they had scheduled a group meeting for 3 p.m. the following day.
However, Mr. Penn said that without his knowledge, Ms. Smith then aligned herself with the VIP, securing a position as the deputy premier.
“That was a unilateral decision that was made,” he said. “I want to make clear at this point that that does not represent the view of the National Democratic Party government, and steps are being made to deal with that situation.”
He added that NDP executives were working to oust Ms. Smith from the party. Other opposition members also shared their frustration with her actions. Given their numbers and apparent commitment to uniting and ousting the VIP, they said, they anticipated having much more time to negotiate the specifics of a deal.
Mr. Penn also noted that Ms. Smith was the first to propose some sort of agreement with the incumbent VIP, which he said was vehemently opposed by all three parties.
“My position as [NDP] chairman was extremely clear,” Mr. Penn said. “I stood on principle. I was contacted by the Virgin Islands Party as well, by many members of the party, asking me to leave my organisation and join them to be the deputy premier. … We ran on an anti-corruption campaign.”
Given the “viable option” of working with the PVIM and PU, Mr. Penn said he preferred not to work with the VIP.
Mr. Penn said he believed the NDP’s message resonated with voters, some of whom have criticised Ms. Smith’s move.
“I’ve gotten persons who have said to me, ‘I will never vote again,’” he said. “People feel betrayed. But I want to say to those persons, do not let the actions of one person deter you from doing what’s best for your country moving forward.”
After ventilating the manner in which the new leadership was formed, the members turned their attention to how they would move forward in carrying out the people’s business.
With an increase in opposition members serving in the fifth House of Assembly, members hope to have a stronger influence on legislative issues and bring greater transparency to government, Mr. Penn said.
Mr. Skelton, who will serve as the new leader of the opposition, said he hopes to improve communication between constituents and their representatives.
Members also said they would use the tools at their disposal to oppose anything that they do not believe is in the best interest of the territory.
“If we have to resort to filibustering, we will,” Mr. Fraser added.
Other members also expressed a strong commitment to bringing greater transparency to government, specifically calling for the committee stage of debating legislation to be held in public.
Mr. Penn said he also hopes to make the proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee public.
“We have to make sure that we’re fully transparent with the process,” he said.
During the majority of the fourth House, the opposition was composed of Messrs. Penn, Turnbull, Fraser and the NDP’s Mark Vanterpool. Mr. Penn served as the leader of the opposition for most of that time.
However, leadership fell to Mr. Fraser when Messrs. Penn and Turnbull joined the National Unity Government last year during the Commission of Inquiry fallout.
Mr. Vanterpool did not seek re-election, but the opposition gained Messrs. Mather and Skelton during the elections.
When questioned about how they would support new member Mr. Mather, who secured the most votes of any at-large candidate, opposition members said they would work to ensure his perspective is heard, perhaps through a sort of “shadow” ministerial position.
Mr. Mather added that he is grateful to see voters come out in such strong numbers to support him, and he said he is eager to learn.