Party leaders join in a debate hosted by the public service, addressing concerns about outstanding increments for workers and follow-through on promises made along the campaign trail. From left, debaters include National Democratic Party Leader Marlon Penn, Progressive Virgin Islands Movement Leader Ronnie Skelton, Premier and Virgin Islands Party Leader Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, and Patriotic Citizens Movement Leader Ishmael Brathwaite. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Political party leaders fielded questions on issues including unpaid increments, rooting out corruption in the civil service, and projects like the Joes Hill housing development while participating in two debates over the past week.

They first joined the Virgin Islands Civil Service Association on April 6 for a forum focused on topics of particular interest to public officers.

Then on April 11, they took part in another debate hosted by the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College that included discussion of more general issues.

The debate on April 6 — which drew about 50 people to Maria’s by the Sea — featured Premier and Virgin Islands Party leader Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, National Democratic Party leader Marlon Penn, Progressive Virgin Islands Movement leader Ronnie Skelton, and Ishmael Brathwaite, an independent candidate leading a potential coalition called the Patriotic Citizens Movement. Progressives United leader Julian Fraser did not take part.

The candidates tackled four main topics during a three-hour debate before briefly responding to questions from the audience. The first question focused on the disparity between retirement benefits afforded to public officers and to elected officials. Legislators unanimously passed the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) Act 2021 in May 2021, dramatically increasing their own pension benefits. The decision drew heavy criticism on the campaign trail, and legislators including the premier have since declared their intent to repeal the act.

“Currently, the retirement benefits of the public officers are calculated less favourably than the former members of the House of Assembly,” stated moderator Dawn Leonard, a retired public officer. “For example, after 28 years of service on a $40,000 annual salary, the retiring public officer has two choices: A) A full pension which will pay $1,866.67 per month until their death, and it does not go on to their spouse; or B) A reduced pension of $1,400 per month and a gratuity of $70,000. What are your plans regarding our pension, including A) your views on contributory pensions? And B) Will you address the disparity between the retirement benefits for legislators and public officers? And C) Will you consider lowering the number of years that a public officer has to work to qualify for a pension considering that legislators are eligible after five years — less than two terms?”

In their responses, the candidates agreed that the public officers’ pension system is unsustainable and in need of reform, and they supported a system where employees can make contributions matched by the government.

Dr. Wheatley said that without a contributory scheme, the system would eventually bankrupt the government at current rates, and a comprehensive review is necessary to ensure all seniors’ needs are met.

He added that legislators’ benefits should be set by an independent body, not by legislators themselves.

He also suggested providing incentives for prospective retirees who are no longer passionate about their work but waiting out their benefits to be able to move on, opening up positions for younger people.

Mr. Penn said a contributory scheme would offer more certainty for civil servants.

“We have to ensure that once there are any derived accrued benefits that it goes back to the pensioners as a cost-of-living increase,” he said. “We know we are currently going through some extreme circumstances now with the cost of living, and we need to look at our overall social safety net.”

Speaking about legislators’ pensions, Mr. Skelton said he considers five years to be too few to qualify, arguing that eight years would be more appropriate instead.


The VICSA then asked the leaders for their views on the territory’s overdue census, and what role such data, public meetings, and referendums should play in policymaking.

All four supported carrying out the census, and Dr. Wheatley added that the exercise is “due to take place this June.”

The most recent census was published in 2010.

The candidates also all highlighted the need for adequate public consultation on draft bills. Mr. Skelton, though, noted that this isn’t possible when bills are rushed through the House of Assembly.

Mr. Penn strongly supported making HOA committee debates public in the interest of better representing the public’s input.

When the panellists were asked individually if they agreed, they all said yes.

“In a post-COI, [post]-April 28 BVI, transparency and accountability have to be more than just buzzwords,” Mr. Penn said. “It has to be the order of the day.”

Mr. Brathwaite added that census data can be useful in comprehensive planning for expanding services to remote areas based on demand.

On this topic, the debaters disagreed only on one point: whether HOA sittings should be regularly scheduled rather than based on immediate needs.

Dr. Wheatley argued that the amount of legislation coming through is too inconsistent for regular meetings, but his peers favoured a schedule that allows for emergency meetings or cancellations as needed.

Attendees loudly cheered when Ms. Leonard emphasised the importance of starting HOA sittings on time.

Joes Hill housing project

Ms. Leonard then asked each candidate how they would address shortcomings with the recently constructed Joes Hill housing project, which was completed last summer but has struggled to find buyers. She quoted one letter that listed a three-bedroom townhouse with a $625,000 starting price.

She also inquired about their plans to make homeownership attainable for residents, especially for first-time buyers.

Mr. Skelton recounted early discussions about the Social Security Board investing in real estate. The investment in the Joes Hill project, he said, was designed to provide an alternative to United States bonds while generating housing for VI residents.

He added that the original plan — which was conceived under his watch as health and social development minister in the previous NDP-led government — would have ensured that the SSB met its return-on-investment requirements for managing the SSB fund.

“We bought up quite a bit of lands, and instead of giving the people the lands we decided to build houses, because we also recognise that when you sell someone a piece of land and they go build a house, the house ends up costing five, six hundred thousand dollars,” Mr. Skelton said. “That doesn’t work either, because they end up in financial difficulties. So we decided to build these homes.”

He claimed ignorance of the current problem with the project but suggested that it could be an “anomaly” stemming from escalating construction costs.

Additionally, he proposed that the government provide subsidies to prospective buyers and said the SSB may have to “bite some of the losses” on the project.

Mr. Penn disagreed with his last point, saying that the government should assume responsibility for the cost so the SSB can get its expected return on the investment. He added that while the intent was good, the project was a “failed experiment.”

He also noted the increasing challenge of homeownership and described his plans to establish a revolving fund to assist motivated buyers with securing an initial deposit. More broadly, he said the territory needs to be sure homes are being built that are fit for purpose with reasonable maintenance costs.

Mr. Brathwaite agreed that government should provide support for first-time buyers, calling for a standardised programme to which they can apply.

Dr. Wheatley claimed that the government did not adequately communicate the intentions of the SSB-financed Joes Hill project.

“I believe that there was a great deal of confusion in terms of the perception really of what this project is,” he said. “It’s my understanding that this project was never intended really to be for low-income earners.”

Dr. Wheatley said miscommunication about the qualifications for ownership got people’s hopes up, and organisers were perhaps “premature” in signing up applicants. Future developments in other communities should target specific price brackets, he said, adding that they should be planned by the Ministry of Health and Social Development rather than the SSB given the latter’s primary focus on protecting its investments.

He also said a variety of approaches would make sense, including utilising “rent to own” models and occasional subsidies.

Other topics

The panel also fielded questions about addressing any possible corruption in the public service; supporting police and teacher associations; paying overdue increments; and following through on promises made during campaign season. The leaders made similar commitments to address those concerns if appointed.

Ms. Leonard concluded the debate with a question about the parties’ comprehensive vision for the sustainable development of the territory, and how they would work with the public service to carry out those plans.

In their two-minute responses, the candidates focused largely on responsible borrowing and spending.

Mr. Penn highlighted the need to switch to user-friendly e-government systems.

Mr. Brathwaite claimed the government is overlooking significant revenue sources, stating he has knowledge of interest-free sources totalling $1.5 trillion — though he declined to provide any details.

Dr. Wheatley centred his remarks on the government’s recent passage of a National Sustainable Development Plan and said his administration would focus on improving residents’ quality of life by addressing social, educational and health needs.

Mr. Skelton said the PVIM would focus on environmental development and other initiatives.

The second debate

Party leaders returned to the debate stage on April 11 at HLSCC, this time joined by Mr. Fraser but not Mr. Brathwaite.

In response to questions from moderator Ronn Grant of 284 Media, they discussed their parties’ plans, fiscal policies and strategies to stabilise the territory’s economy despite recent global turmoil.

After the candidates introduced themselves, Mr. Grant kicked off the debate by asking how they intend to implement the National Sustainable Development Plan. The NSDP — which was recently adopted by the government and laid in the House of Assembly in February — provides a development roadmap that is designed to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals through 2036.

Dr. Wheatley touted his efforts as premier to adopt the plan, and he explained how he would implement it if re-elected.

“We will create a unit in the Premier’s Office … tasked — along with the United Nations Development Plan — with producing an implementation plan,” he said.

Mr. Penn noted his party’s contributions to the NSDP, which he said was initially developed under the previous NDP-led administration. He also suggested that the Recovery and Development Agency — which was established under the NDP in 2018 — could become a national development agency focused on implementing the NSDP.

Mr. Fraser said the plan’s only chance of success lies with senior civil servants, and he stressed the importance of prioritising its key facets.

“We are not concerned about which government created [the plan],” he added. “If the things in there are for the people of the Virgin Islands, we will implement it.”

He added that he would support using existing systems (such as the current health care system) to accomplish the main points of the NSDP.

Fiscal policy

The second point of debate focused on fiscal policy and social welfare. Mr. Grant asked the leaders what they would do to ensure the economic health of the society.

Mr. Skelton acknowledged a “growing gap between the rich and the poor” in the territory and said the PVIM would continue to help build homes by securing loans for residents in need.

“There is a crying need for a [liveable] income,” he added. “At some point, minimum wage needs to be instituted. We need to look at that.”

Mr. Fraser said the best way to help the people would be by “growing the economy.” He also stressed the importance of economic diversification, providing historical examples of people who found success following the introduction of new industries.

Mr. Penn focused his contribution largely on fiscal policy, stating that leaders are responsible for implementing strong strategies that will benefit the people in the long run.

Dr. Wheatley said his party “believes in being fiscally responsible” and added that the VIP would “operate” within agreed fiscal guidelines. His party, he added, had to shoulder existing challenges when it took power in 2019.

Without proper controls on fiscal policies, he warned, the United Kingdom could take “control of the territory’s finances.”

Fiscal stability

Continuing with the debate, Mr. Grant asked the party leaders what they plan to do if the value of the United States dollar plummets.

Mr. Penn said his party would continue to “monitor the situation.” Because the territory trades heavily with the US, he added, he supports prudent fiscal policies designed to ensure stability regardless of economic swings.

Mr. Fraser called for “sound investments” and said that the territory needs to find the best uses for its money. If the VI wants to change its currency, he added, it needs permission from the UK.

Mr. Skelton said the US dollar won’t be dramatically affected “quickly,” and he advised that the VI pay more attention to the stock market than to the value of the dollar.

Dr. Wheatley said it’s important to support the local economy and help the territory develop by building stronger international partnerships.

Underfunded NHI

Later, the debate touched on the National Health Insurance system, which the government subsidises by some $40 million or more each year.

Mr. Skelton defended the decision to launch the scheme, which was established by the former NDP-led administration under his watch as health and social development minister.

At the time of the launch, he said, more than 65 percent of Virgin Islanders didn’t have any health insurance.

“It was important that we create a system to alleviate the huge expenditures government was making for health care,” he said, adding, “The government has a social responsibility to pay NHI for [those who can’t afford it].”

However, Mr. Skelton acknowledged that the system currently needs reform due in part to its lack of fiscal sustainability.

Mr. Fraser also strongly supported the regime, stating that it was necessary but hasn’t “lived up to” expectations. He added that NHI doesn’t cover certain medical procedures and treatments, stating that this gap in coverage leaves people helpless in many cases.

Mr. Penn and Dr. Wheatley also said that launching NHI was the right thing to do, but they too pointed out various issues with the system. Mr. Penn said NHI shouldn’t necessarily serve as all residents’ primary health insurance, and he added that the territory needs updated data before making changes.

Dr. Wheatley called for comprehensive reform of the NHI system, saying that he has been making such suggestions since before the scheme took effect.

“This system needs more than just a tweak,” he said, adding, “The NHI scheme came around somewhere around 2016, and I went on record saying, ‘Go back to the drawing board.’”

Political status

The next debate topic centred around the territory’s political status. Mr. Grant asked the leaders if their parties support independence, free association, or a different approach under the existing political framework.

However, none of the candidates took a strong stance on one of those three choices. Instead, they called for more dialogue and education.

Mr. Penn answered the question first, calling for a “collective effort” to teach the population the difference between self-determination and free association.

Mr. Fraser spoke similarly.

“Education is key,” he said, adding, “Until the people of the territory are fully aware of what it means, we are going nowhere.”

Mr. Skelton spoke about the road to “total internal self-government,” and he stressed the importance of putting fiscal and legal systems in place to protect the territory before pursuing independence.

Dr. Wheatley took a strong stance against colonialism and said the territory must change its status sooner rather than later. But he stopped short of providing specifics.

“It is the express wish of the people which will determine which option [we take],” he said.

Carbon, COI, economy

The debate continued by touching on topics like reducing the territory’s carbon footprint; the continuation of implementing Commission of Inquiry reforms; the recent law that increased legislators’ retirement allowance; and economic strains like underemployment.