The Progressive Virgin Islands Movement was born late last year 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.
Since their switch across the aisle and Mr. Skelton’s appointment as opposition leader, the PVIM has ramped up its campaign by fleshing out its constitution, creating a “business plan” and officially bringing seven other candidates into the fold.
Three of them, like PVIM leader Mr. Skelton, are running at large. The others are running in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth districts. Of those, only Messrs. Skelton and Turnbull, the District Two incumbent, have previously served in the legislature.
The party has said that its guiding principles are accountability, transparency, empowerment, inspiration, integrity and hope.
“The Progressive Virgin Islands Movement desires to witness a strong people emerging from our beloved land (especially following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017) that will participate in building up the wealth of the territory of the Virgin Islands,” the party’s vision states.
The following interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Amanda Ulrich.
What do you think are the top three accomplishments of the National Democratic Party over the past eight years, and some of the accomplishments that you personally had?
Why do I need to talk about the NDP? I’m not in the NDP anymore.
You have people that say the PVIM is “NDP Two” — or at least that’s been the branding from some.
We don’t believe that, but go ahead.
If you were talking to any voter on the street, would you say: “We are not the NDP and this is why?”
Twenty years ago when I was one of the founding fathers of the NDP, we started out to build a country and build people [so] that generations to come would be proud of us. We were on the right track and, in my mind, we basically lost our way. And we started concentrating about ourselves and probably our friends and not on the country and its people. So it’s a divergence that happened probably over the last five to seven years. But I think I couldn’t go along with it anymore.
So when people say you split off from the NDP —
I did not split off. My plan was to go and retire. And I was almost on my way to retiring until people that I have a lot of confidence in, who I respect, called me and said, “No, Ronnie, you can’t do that, you can’t do that to us.” It took me about three months to think about it. And I made up my mind that I should at least try to see if I could help my country one more time.
There are certain things that residents bring up, like BVI Airways or other controversies with in the NDP, but are there things that as a unit you believe the NDP did right?
We concentrated on some stuff like the [National Health Insurance], which took a little while. Even some of my colleagues, when they go they hear the negatives. But sitting in the Ministry of Health and having my own health issues… I think to leave so many people, probably more than half the population, uninsured or don’t have access to health care at the levels that they need was not the right thing to do. So even I, with my own medical insurance… And then you go into the neighbourhoods and you realise that there are people there with serious illnesses that need immediate attention, but they don’t have the resources and the government individually can’t do it.
So collectively in a solidarity kind of way we had to do something. So the NHI is one of those things that has been — you know, there’s no perfect thing — so it needs tweaking and [we] need to understand its longevity. And we have actuaries, who will, on an annual basis, be looking at the system and seeing what it would take to keep it surviving. Some of the people have gotten their health issues resolved: That’s one of the good things that we have done.
You personally have experience in office, but you have some people who are running with the PVIM who have never run before. When you were selecting people who you wanted to be part of your team, were you looking for those who maybe are fresh to the political system?
We were looking for people who had leadership qualities. That’s number one, right? Because it’s important if you get into these systems and if you don’t understand leadership, if you don’t understand some of the things that go along with being a leader, you know: producing a financial statement, understanding what some of it means. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. Understanding how you should be spending your monies and so forth. Those are the people that we think bring [those things] to the table. But on the other hand, we also need to get people who understand the ordinary people, right? Because while I may look like a successful person today, I always look back and understand where I came from. Because I was just like anybody else. And today I would like to use my skill set, along with my colleagues, to make sure that we bring a lot of those people along.
There have been threats to both the financial services and the tourism industries after Hurricane Irma, and there has been a lot of talk about diversifying the VI economy. Are there specific areas where you would like to see the economy diversified?
Medical tourism is something that I will continue to push. I think because of our tourism infrastructure — some of it has been destroyed, but it’s being rebuilt — and if you can get the Airbnb back up, get it moving where our local people, or people who have homes in the country, can sign on to Airbnb and get people to come, they’ll be coming to do a surgery here that is turning out to be cheaper than doing it someplace else. And they can enjoy the sand, sea and the beautiful country. Then you know that’s a plus.
But to get that done we have to get the health care system, especially the government system, accredited. Before Hurricane Irma we were on the road to getting it done, but we got a setback.
We have a lot of requests from doctors wanting to come, but we have to get our labs, our imaging. Our professional nurses and doctors need to understand what it means. Even down to the people who are cleaning the hospital need to understand what accreditation means. I think the past CEO, and the one before, did quite a bit of work to put this stuff in place. So I think we can do it.
If we do that, every time they use the hospital, some of the numbers we were hearing were $15,000 or $20,000 per patient. And some of the places that we’ve been to do hundreds and hundreds of patients for all sorts of minor surgeries. So it’s something that we can add to diversify our economy.
One of the other things that we need to pay attention to — it’s a diversification but it’s [also] a necessity — is agriculture and fishing. We’ve got to get the farmers producing some higher level of food for this country. There is no reason why our chicken, pig, goat and sheep farmers can’t get back up. They don’t need a lot of space to do it. [The fishing complex] never break even. It was put there to break even. So instead of the fisherman along the road [the aim was for them to be] selling fish in a more hygienic way — that they can leave the fish there and they’ll be processed. The supermarkets and the general public would go and buy the fish.
It was working for a while. It almost break even. But whenever government is involved in stuff the business side of it comes out. To me, it needs privatising. Get the fisherman who’s into the business, you know: even if it’s a subsidy. Because wherever you go in this world, agriculture, these things are subsidised. The end result is to get the food on the plates of the citizen. How much you subsidise it depends on how efficient the systems are. And I think that’s a good starter. I think it could employ people and some of it is just subsidy, basically, at the beginning.
Do you know what the status of the [proposed] medical school is?
A licence was given, I think. One of the things that we were, at the beginning, we were interested in bringing in a nursing school and a medical school. Because if you’re going to be in health care you need professionals on the ground who probably have skills that we don’t have here, or we can consult with. So there is a benefit for us if we get a medical school — a good one — and a nursing school here.
So as far as you know, that plan is still in the works?
I think they’re looking at space, accommodation. I think in some ways all of these things have pluses and minuses. And I like to think on the pluses first and I try to eliminate. I’m not going to get all the negatives eliminated. I’m not Jesus. I’m not going to get that done. But if the pluses are more than the minuses I’m willing to go with the pluses.
Do you support the runway extension at Beef Island? And if so, do you see the VI moving away from the smaller tourism model it currently has? Do you expect the VI to become a bigger market if that extension were to happen?
There are a couple of things. There’s no doubt in my mind that the runway and the airport needs to be extended or expanded. Even for the private jets and so forth and so on. You know you have charter jets that can’t land here because the runway’s not long enough. How much we lengthen it is the issue. And they’re making planes, I understand, that can land on shorter runways. So the distance should go — I guess the professional will tell us what the distance is. I think the problem with the extension of the runway and the whole airport expansion is the minimum bid was at like $300 million, if my memory serves me right. $300 million with all the other things that are happening, for the government to do it is basically gonna tie the country down for a while. Some basic infrastructure things might not get done. So that’s one of the things that I would be paying a lot of attention to.
So would it be something that farther down the road you would come back to? Is there a specific time for that?
The idea of getting people flying from Miami, Orlando, Carolina, Washington DC, New York into BVI — it’s a good idea. We need to find a way to do it. Whatever happens, the people the government got involved with [at BVI Airways] were not aboveboard and for ome reason they say due diligence was done? But the project was supposed to cost, say, about $10 million? The government decides that this is the agreement: If you’re flying to BVI without a certain amount of occupancy we will subsidise it. The same thing they were doing to American Airlines way back. American Eagle, I mean. And a lot of countries do this stuff, so it’s not just we were doing it.
But we didn’t follow the agreement. And if I was the minister of finance, we would have followed the agreement, I tell you that. I won’t sit here and tell you that I would not have lose some money, but it wouldn’t have been $7.2 million. That I could almost guarantee you. Because I don’t operate on that. If you and I have an agreement, we’re gonna follow the agreement. Basically those of us who were not involved in that could not have known that until the end.
So you’re saying you were in favour of the principle the project, but the Ministry of Finance was responsible for the administration?
It’s the same way with me. The Ministry of Finance is responsible for allocating the funds and I am responsible for building the Iris O’Neal Clinic. If something goes wrong there — number one, I believe when I was the minister of finance we set up the Internal Audit Unit. And the reasons for that: Because I was at the [BVI Electricity Corporation] before that, and we had inside the accounting division someone there who will make sure that procedures are followed. Because I can’t on a day-to-day [basis] follow all the procedures. So when we went there we set up the Internal Audit Unit, and their job was to go and make sure that things are done according to the contract, according to the rules.
In terms of your ministry, in 2014 the solid waste strateg y was passed. There were certain things in that strategy — a recycling facility, a study on waste-to-energy strategies — which haven’t actually happened yet.
The waste-to-energy study, there was something done. It was done outside of Electricity when I was at [the BVIEC]. So I had an idea of what it was supposed to do.
So was the study completed?
We had the study done a long time ago at Electricity. There was something that was done. Whether or not you find it now is another problem.
Certain elements of that [solid waste] strategy — like the recycling facility that was proposed — didn’t end up happening. Is there a reason why?
What I have learned in this country is there are always people coming with these bright ideas. Especially recycling, renewable energy, and those things: They work, but there’s always someone who is bypassing [carrying them out in a country] where it’s supposed to be more profitable to come to areas where, from a business perspective, it doesn’t seem to me to make sense. But they are willing to do. So once I am not using one cent of the taxpayers’ money to accommodate that, I will go along with it.
I know you’ve said before that the Department of Waste Management didn’t pay Kausina VI anything, but do you think that because of that company’s delays in removing waste from Coxheath, the garbage piled up, causing the massive trash fire last year?
No, that wasn’t Kausina’s responsibility. That had nothing to do with Kausina. They came in after the hurricane; came in after the fact. I think the best people to talk to about that is Solid Waste or [Greg] Massicote. But they were down there separating the garbage. And the day before the first fire happened, I drove in there. And when they called me and told me the fire happened, the people from Solid Waste were there two hours before I drove in there. So there had to be something happened — somebody or someone was trying to get something from out of the garbage that caused that fire.
What do you mean?
You know, whenever you have like old vehicles — you ever been to the car wreck place in Sea Cows Bay? That was on fire a couple of times. And it all stemmed from somebody going there to get a part for their vehicle — their truck or whatever — with a blowtorch or something. I know I don’t have all the evidence, but when I drove in there it was about 6 o’clock. [There was] something they were doing that caused the fire. And probably when they left they didn’t realise a spark was [there].
At the West End community meeting a few months ago, many people came out and were really upset and were getting sick [from the garbage fires].
They have a right to be upset. I was there 2003, 2007. I bought the incinerator that was supposed to come with a waste … scrubber. For some unknown reason — well, I was fired 2007; I lost the election so I was fired — but [the incinerator] was already ordered. It was almost ready to be shipped. That’s what happened. And it took after the next government got into office: At the end of the term is when [the incinerator] arrived here. And then it was installed. When they realised it didn’t have a waste scrubber on it, that was the first mistake. We ordered the waste scrubber. It was designed; we paid the deposit for the design and then it was supposed to go into production.
Have you had some concerns about Consutech?
The company that’s delivering the scrubber.
No, that’s a legitimate company. They make a lot of incinerators, even for the federal government.
They have now been enlisted to create a new control panel for the incinerator [that was damaged in a November fire], but it seems to sometimes take years to get parts from them. Are you at all concerned that now the incinerator has been down for a couple months?
Yeah, that’s something serious. Because the other thing we were supposed to do — that’s where I think I said we lost our way — because we were supposed to concentrate on building the infrastructure of the country. Good infrastructure means happy people, people basically understanding that we’re taking care of their basic needs. Garbage disposal is one of those things. You know, health care is one, [and] education.
Would you resurrect the solid waste strategy? You know, bring that back and say: “We’re going to go through this point by point again”?
Yes, I think we had a good strategy. The strategy was all the way up to litter wardens. I licensed at least about 50 people to be litter wardens over the period. But everyone is scared to issue a ticket. They’ll always come back with something that needs to be amended in the law. So people just throwing the garbage all the over the place and our country is really dirty. And we need to fix it.
So are there specific things moving forward that you will implement, like a waste-to-energy plant or recycling facility?
If we can get the funding to start it, to do it ourselves, to build it — it will be done. Then if you want to lease it — and when we lease something it’s not just the benefit that comes directly from it that we should be concentrating on. We should be looking at the benefit it brings to the whole country. But some people get caught up in the cost: “Oh, you’re losing money there.” But there’s a greater good that a waste-to-energy plant or a recycling plant brings to the country. The country has a lot of garbage, not just this island. It’s becoming something that any government in office needs to pay attention to. And it needs to be properly funded.
And where do you think that funding would come from? The annual budget?
We have to set priorities. And if it’s for the first year to get this done that’s what we should do. I know there are a lot of things that are important, but things like sewage needs to be fixed. Yes, we need decent roads.
What do you think the solution is to the sewage problem?
We have the processing unit that was damaged in the hurricane. To me that should have been a priority of ours to get it back online. I know there’s gonna be all kinds of probably delayed parts, delaying — in terms of ordering parts in such a short notice. But if we had approached it and attacked it immediately after the storm, I think we could have had some level of it back online.
In terms of the recovery process, currently you have the [$65 million Caribbean Development Bank] loan; you have certain things that are supposed to be pushing the recovery process for ward. Are there certain [other] funding avenues that you think government could access? Certain types of funding you could access to speed along the process?
You honestly think the process is — first let me step back a minute. I was listening to the recovery efforts in, where was it, Houston? Galveston? And that was, what, four or five years ago? I listened to both the FEMA and some people who help volunteer organisations that go in and build homes and stuff for people. I listened to an interview and I couldn’t take my eyes off it because this guy was being upfront and honest.
People believe that after an event of whatever it is — hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, typhoon — that a country can rebuild back where it was in a very short space of time. That’s impossible.
I see it from a practical position. We had $65 million, which we drew down quickly for whatever reason, again from a business point — I don’t know what, I’ll leave that to the Ministry of Finance. But I don’t see why I would want to draw down $65 million from a bank, even to do my business here. It’s sitting there: I have to pay for it. But I need to get some benefit from the money I draw down. It seemed like we were not ready. I don’t know why we draw it down but it was drawn down.
So [opposition member Andrew] Fahie had a good point, you know. We’re paying not for a month or two, but for a year. So we’re paying interest on monies that we’re not using. That didn’t make sense to me either.
I think the leadership made decisions during the crisis period that we couldn’t backtrack from. We made some decision that all the monies for the recovery are going to an organisation. Eventually it was named the [Recovery and
Development Agency]. But they set up a different entity and they wouldn’t go into government coffers so as to comingle with it. The idea is a good idea because if I was doing a project, I will bring in a team, create the project manager and have the project done. It’s the same thing. But it seemed like we had no control over it.
I read over the PVIM business plan, and I wanted to just go through it. I noticed that there were some transparency measures that you didn’t list by name. Would [you support] a public register of interests for legislators and senior public officers, or freedom of information legislation?
If [the public register] applies to everyone — everyone in a position of making decisions — I don’t have a problem.
What about the freedom of information legislation?
If it’s the same like how they do in London, England, you don’t get [requested information] immediately. Depends on what it is: You don’t get it immediately. People believe because I’m dealing with this you’re supposed to get it immediately while I deal with it. There’s a lag time: I don’t know exactly, but it’s not years. And it’s not a year. But I don’t have a problem with anything that is measured and is not gonna cause issues in the country.
What about campaign finance reform?
If you give monies to a political party then you should not allow one individual to give more than a certain amount. It makes the general public feel that the individual is buying the system, you know. You don’t want that. So there is something that is needed in the campaign financing.
In terms of the PVIM, have you gone about funding in a certain way? Are there certain things you will release [about your financing]?
I can’t control individual candidates. But for the party itself, we’re gonna have a record. Whether we release those amounts is something else. So anyone who gives us money, we write their name down. So if you give me a dollar, I’ll write your name down.
Especially with the all the public meetings that happened last year, how do you see the VI’s relationship with the United Kingdom? Do you ever envision a time when the VI is its own country? Do you think that’s feasible?
In the long term I’m sure there will be a leader that will advocate for it. I don’t have such a long term. But I believe the road that we were traveling — that is, to be more self-sustaining, more responsible, more transparent in everything we do — I think we were on the right road and basically whenever things like investigation and corruption and stuff raise their ugly head, it just puts you back further. But if you set up the systems — the auditor general’s system — give them the resources [so] when things are being done they don’t wait until the last minute.
Do you think the auditor general doesn’t have enough resources?
Based on the some of things she’s said, yes. She had resources based on an economy that was simple. Now it’s a lot more complex, so she needs more people to investigate. There will be mistakes. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure if you go into anything you will find mistakes. But are those mistakes deliberate? Are they trying to hurt the taxpayer or are they being done with malice? Those are the things that need to happen with the chief auditor.
In regards to the Climate Change Adaptation Policy [adopted by Cabinet] in 2012 —
I must agree, albeit my climate change guru is Dr. [Kedrick] Pickering. I listen to what he says, because he goes to all those conferences. There is no doubt that there is something happening around the globe as it relates to climate. Because even in the United States now, the [polar] vortex that plunged temperatures way beyond in places that have never seen that before. You know, even some months ago, in the Philippines or Indonesia, where the rains just killed and washed a lot of people away.
Are there certain things that can be done, including renewing this policy again, and actually having some of those goals like the national development plan or wetlands protection [completed]?
In our business plan, there’s a national development policy — development plan, not policy — that we intend to do in the first year, that spans about 20 years. And we intend to follow that plan while we’re there.
Would something like wetlands protection be specifically included?
Behind every one of our beaches — the white sandy beaches — is a pond. So the water comes from the hills, settles in the pond, before it goes into the ocean. So regardless of what rain happens, the waters will always flow. But we have filled all the ponds around the beaches, so the water could come from the mountains straight into the oceans, carrying with it all the dirt and everything. So there is a need to create, to re-create, some kind of settling ponds behind beaches now. And it needs to be done.
Whatever wetlands still exist need to remain. You know, people get angry and say, “Well, what about all those people who are already there?” But if it’s in the country’s interest, then the government should purchase that wetland so nobody will ever mess with it again.
I almost had [a ban on Styrofoam approved], but they fired me before. All the Styrofoam, plastic, straws and stuff like that — I think it’s still moving forward.
So will that be one of your main priorities on your agenda?
Not a priority: It will be done. It will be done as quickly as possible. It’s something we will do, but I was doing it while I was there [in the Ministry of Health and Social Development]. We had Cabinet’s approval. We had a Cabinet decision to move forward. We had some sample bills from, I forget some of the countries — four or five countries. But you have to give [business owners] a timeframe to get biodegradable containers. I think there’s a company here that would assess them. Probably we need to control the price or something. I am not a price control person, because it makes the stuff go scarce. Because if you’re not making enough return, you’re not going to invest in it. So all the biodegradable stuff needs to come. There are still all these food vans and stuff along the road. That’s where the problem is.
With education, there have been challenges since Irma, especially with Elmore Stoutt High School. If you are re-elected, is there anything you would do to push those [repairs] forward?
Well, it’s being pushed right now. I know it’s being pushed because the election is around the corner, but we will continue to double up time to make sure it happens. The kids need to go back into school for fourth period. We must find a solution and we need to find it fast. We definitely need to get the high school back up, and we need to do it quickly.