Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley described the reasoning behind the assignment of portfolios among the members of the new Virgin Islands Party-led administration during a May 2 press conference. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The new House of Assembly is taking shape. The past week saw the appointment of Progressive Virgin Islands Movement leader Ronnie Skelton as opposition leader and the setting of ministerial portfolios for members of the Virgin Islands Party-led administration.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley held a press conference on May 2 to explain how his new government will seek to fulfil it mandates and address past shortfalls.

To that end, he said, it has reshuffled some portfolios and rebranded the former Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour as the Ministry of Financial Services, Labour and Trade.

“This is a new and necessary ministerial portfolio that places these three interrelated subjects and others under one ministry, which will allow for greater policy coherence in their administration,” Dr. Wheatley said of the new ministry, which will be led by Deputy Premier Lorna Smith (R-at large). “We had discussed the establishment of a ministry for a long time.”

The rebranding means that there is no longer a ministry with “natural resources” in its name, but Dr. Wheatley (R-D7) said this doesn’t mean the environment will be neglected.

“I remain the premier and minister of finance, and I am also the minister with responsibility for natural resources that now sits within the Premier’s Office,” he said.

The ministers

Other ministerial appointments include Kye Rymer (R-D5) returning as minister of communications and works; Sharie de Castro (R-at large) returning as minister of education, youth affairs and sports; Vincent Wheatley (R-D9) as minister of health and social development; Dr. Karl Dawson (R-D1) as junior minister of agriculture and fisheries; and Luce Hodge-Smith (R-D4) as junior minister of tourism and culture.

Because there are only seven members of the government, all the members hold either a ministership or a junior ministership.

United Kingdom trip

Governor John Rankin confirmed the appointments on April 28, and Dr. Wheatley said he expects members to be sworn in at the inaugural fifth House of Assembly sitting on May 18.

In the meantime, the premier is scheduled to travel to the United Kingdom this week for the coronation of King Charles III on May 6. While in the UK, he and Ms. Smith also plan to attend the Joint Ministerial Council meeting on May 11-12.

“Honourable Smith and I will also resume engagement with our United Kingdom partners to continue the process of building a new modern partnership that is stable and supports the aspirations of the people of the Virgin Islands,” Dr. Wheatley said.

“Among other things, we will meet UK OT Minister Lord Goldsmith, other UK ministers and the BVI All Party Parliamentary Group in the United Kingdom Parliament to discuss how the UK government can support my administration’s agenda on reform, economic resilience, infrastructure, sustainable development, climate change, environment, education, health and security.”

The premier also confirmed that he had already met with Mr. Rankin since the election about the continued implementation of the Commission of Inquiry reforms.

“The wheels of democracy are turning as we continue the new era of democratic governance,” he said during the May 2 press conference.

Dr. Wheatley added that the government’s work moving forward will be guided by the VIP Manifesto and the National Sustainable Development Plan — on which the manifesto is based.

Vincent Wheatley

While some members of the administration are new to ministerial positions, others are returning.

Mr. Wheatley previously served as the natural resources, labour and immigration minister but left his position as the National Unity Government was formed amid the COI report fallout last year.

Asked about Mr. Wheatley’s return to a ministerial role and whether UK officials had been consulted, the premier said no, but he added that he fully backed the newly re-elected leader.

“There were lots of rumours that he could not sit in Cabinet,” Dr. Wheatley said. “We always knew that those rumours were false. The governor himself confirmed he has no hand in selecting the members of Cabinet.”

He continued, “Honourable Vincent Wheatley is someone who has been in leadership positions. … He’s been someone who has shown leadership in his community, in Virgin Gorda, and throughout the sister islands. He’s more than capable of holding a ministerial portfolio. He did good work when he was there.”

Opposition threats

Though Dr. Wheatley painted an optimistic future, he also expressed disappointment with opposition members’ recent threats to stymie VIP initiatives through filibustering and similar political devices.

The premier added that he supports the calls for greater government transparency extolled by the opposition and members of his own party. To that end, he also committed to enacting freedom of information legislation and related initiatives early in his new term.

“What I don’t welcome is the idea that they’re going to seek to disrupt the work of the government for the people of the Virgin Islands,” he said. “They have described themselves as a ‘united opposition’ and are saying they’re going to have votes of no confidence without anything even coming to the House. In my opinion, that shows bad intentions on behalf of the opposition.”

He added, “It’s important that we work together in the best interests of the people of the Virgin Islands, and forget about trying to capture power.”