In a show of support, members of the government attended Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley’s press conference on Monday. (Photo: GIS)

Governor John Rankin drew the ire of elected leaders last week when he announced plans to seek additional powers to push through delayed Commission of Inquiry reforms.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley quickly condemned the move as an “anti-democratic, colonial-era power grab,” and the opposition echoed his concerns during a Tuesday press conference.

But Mr. Rankin said in a scathing quarterly review released Friday that his approach is needed because of the government’s slow progress on the reform framework agreed by the Virgin Islands and United Kingdom in June 2022.

“Progress in implementing the recommendations of the COI has significantly stalled,” he said during a Friday press conference. “Only one additional recommendation is reported as completed over the past six months. The total stands at 25 of 48, with only a few months left until May.”

Previous review

The assessment was a stark contrast from Mr. Rankin’s fourth quarterly review last September, which was largely positive but noted that substantial progress was needed before the end of last year.

On Friday, he said the government had fallen short of that goal.

“Key recommendations are far behind schedule, and the capacity and determination of the BVI government to drive forward and complete reforms is in question,” he said. “It has remained an option to consider an interim administration whereby the governor takes over the responsibilities of ministers in line with the order in council [imposed by the UK in June 2022]. However, this is not my recommendation at this stage.”

Instead, he said, he is recommending that the UK extend the current May deadline for the COI reforms by six months.

“An extension to the end of November 2024 should enable the recommendations to be fully considered and for legislation to be brought into force,” he said.

To ensure that the reforms are completed, Mr. Rankin said that he was also asking London for additional powers to be given to him and his imminent successor as governor when he exits the post later this month.

He listed several areas where the government has fallen short.

“Ministers have as yet failed to bring into force or strengthen the good-governance legislation which should better hold them to account: for example, the Integrity in Public Life Act, Whistleblower Act and an amended Register of Interests Act,” he said. “This is deeply concerning as these are fundamental reforms which the COI identified as necessary.”

Other measures that should be in place by now include a new education grants policy; a policy setting out the principles of how statutory boards should operate; a new Public Service Management Act; revised Criminal Procedure Rules, and others, according to the governor.

Premier’s response

The premier quickly responded in a statement broadcast Friday, which he followed with a Monday press conference.

“My colleagues and I are alarmed and deeply offended by the governor’s request for additional powers to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry,” the premier told the press conference. “The hallmark of a modern partnership is democratic engagement between partners. Now, for the governor to seek the power to overrule our Constitution and have the authority to act in areas of constitutional responsibility devolved to the elected government, especially after a general election only just eight months ago, is a shock to the system.”

The premier added that he was writing UK Overseas Territories Minister David Rutley to urge him to oppose Mr. Rankin’s request for additional powers.

“We should not be punished, or our democratic and human rights threatened, with an order in council in reserve to suspend our Constitution,” he added. “Nor should the governor be granted additional powers just because he wants to see certain things done before he departs the territory.”

Dr. Wheatley said that granting the governor extra powers would take the VI back more than 50 years and result in a “complete loss of confidence in the governor” and the UK.

Governor John Rankin speaks during a Friday press conference unveiling his fifth quarterly review of the Commission of Inquiry reforms. (Screenshot: GIS)
‘Additional powers’

The premier also warned that the additional powers sought by the governor would be wide-ranging and would require amendments to the Constitution.

“He would have all legislative authority,” Dr. Wheatley said. “He would also have the power to take over any department or ministry. That is what he is requesting.”

He added that the governor wants to get involved in “financial matters” and procurement.

“One of the very damaging additional powers that he is requesting is the ability to introduce new legislation,” Dr. Wheatley said. “The governor has the power to pass legislation once it is already introduced.”

The premier insisted that Mr. Rankin’s request should be rejected.

“I will never be in the undignified position of begging for something that is in my human rights,” he said. “And I do not expect any Virgin Islander to beg for what they have been born to have, which is the dignity of democracy and human rights.”

Government record

The premier also defended his government’s record on the “tight deadlines” of the reform agenda.

“As of November 30, 2023, 50 percent of the recommendations agreed in the implementation framework agreed between the government of the Virgin Islands and the UK government has been fully implemented,” he said.

He then provided a further breakdown.

“Within the 50 recommendations, there are 131 actions. Of these, 80 — 61 percent — have been completed, while there are 34 actions — 26 percent — that are in the red zone, meaning that they are not yet completed and the deadline agreed for their completion has passed,” he said.

In the works

Meanwhile, the premier claimed, action on outstanding areas is on the way.

“Within the next six weeks, Cabinet will consider the new Educational Grants Policy, the new Crown Land Disposal Policy, the new Belongership and Residency Policy, the drafting instructions for the Public Service Management Act,” he said.

The premier also accused Mr. Rankin of falling behind on the reform areas under his own remit.

“I find it questionable that the governor can turn a blind eye to his own failure to make adequate progress on these reforms but wishes to penalise the government of the Virgin Islands for its capacity,” he said.

He added that granting the governor additional powers via an order in council “flies in the face” of democratic governance.

“We call it an order in council, but what it is doing in essence is abolishing democratic governance from the Virgin Islands, and it is being used to threaten us,” he said.

Opposition’s view

When the premier’s Monday press conference was announced, it initially was supposed to include Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton, but the opposition decided instead to hold a separate press conference on Tuesday.

“The government needed to defend the reason why these things were not done,” Mr. Skelton said when asked why he pulled out of the premier’s event. “If it was just the one issue, I would not have had a problem, but there were too many issues. We didn’t want to get muddled.”

United front

Despite Mr. Skelton’s absence on Monday, he and the five other opposition members also stood by the premier in opposing additional powers for the governor.

“We are resolute and in solidarity with the government against the governor diluting our Constitution by taking more powers for himself,” Mr. Skelton said. “That is not democracy.”

He added, “Once the British take stuff back, they don’t give it back to you. That is a known fact.”

However, when asked about the premier’s claims of “a hostile takeover,” Mr. Skelton differentiated between public and private rhetoric.

“I think what we are doing here [versus] in negotiations are two different things,” he said. “Words we will use here and the words we will use in negotiations are two different sets of words.”

District Six Representative Myron Walwyn added, “Overall, we have to make sure the discourse is civil, regardless of what our constitutional position is later on.”

Shaun Connolly reported this story from London.