“Too much power, too much power,” Senior Member of the House of Assembly and Third District Representative Hon. Julian Fraser announced during the debate of the Motion for the Constitutional Review which took place in the House of Assembly on 27 July.
The Motion sought approval from the House of Assembly for the establishment and composition of the Constitutional Review Commission that would be responsible for the undertaking of the complete review of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007.
In his call for modifying the Governor’s powers, the Opposition member noted that the word “Governor” is mentioned numerous times in the Constitution. With the 2007 Constitution in hand, Hon. Fraser cited areas of his concern and encouraged legislators to consider the changes to be made.
In his lamenting of the current powers of the Governor Hon. Fraser told the House, “It’s too much power Mr. Speaker, too much power…There are those of us in our community who don’t care, who doesn’t mind; who feel so subservient that they don’t mind that somebody could wield so much power …You got to have some kind of conscience where something like this must [take]gaul in the 21st century. The powers and authority of the Governor in this day and age have to be revisited with a serious look at having them modified.”
He noted that the post of Governor is a weighty role and mentioned that in various areas of the current Constitution this is evident: “I dare you to show me a page in this document that does not have the word Governor in it and also challenge you to tell me how many times it shows up. It is not frivolously placed. Every time you see that word ‘Governor’ attached to it is a lot of power and influence.”
Hon. Fraser explained that a prime example of the extensive reach the Governor has can be seen in Section 81 of the Constitution. In pointing this out the Legislator said: “Take for instance Section 81, Governor’s reserved power …that any Bill introduced or any Motion this section shall have effect. Then if the House fails to pass the Bill or carry the Motion within such time and in such time as the Governor thinks fit and notwithstanding any provisions of this kind …The Governor may, subject to subsection 2, declare that such Bill or Motion shall have effect as if it had been passed or carried by the House. Either in the form of which it was introduced or proposed or with such amendments as the Governor thinks fit.”
While giving an example of the power of the Governor that he thinks should be changed the Third District Representative said. “The point I am trying to make is, we have no choice in reviewing this Constitution but to look at this particular aspect in the Constitution where a Governor can be so powerful. It takes 13 members of the House of Assembly…plus an Attorney General, plus a Speaker to pass a bill in this House …but one person in the form of a Governor can do that …Something is not right about that picture Mr. Speaker.”
“This Constitution is going to require some serious surgical amendment to yield radical reform…We got to have the stomach to do it …I cannot live with myself the way this document is,” Hon. Fraser added.
As the debate proceeded other members of the House of Assembly boldly made comments calling for lesser UK oversight. However, Premier and Minister for Finance Hon. Andrew Fahie’s comments appeared to agree with those of Hon. Fraser as he also suggested a good look at the Governor’s powers when the debate continued on 28 July.
The Premier expressed concern that the Constitution currently gives the Governor the right to redirect funding to areas he deemed a priority. This Hon. Fahie said overreaches into the role of the Minister of Finance.
In criticizing this power the Premier stated: “Is it right and fair to allow anyone to override the management of the Territory’s finances by the minister charged with that responsibility. Is that right? How can two people be in charge of the same checkbook and spending out of the same checkbook at the same time? Nine out of ten times you are going to have an overdraft, and when the overdraft comes, it is the responsibility of the Minister for Finance. We see the paradox in this?”
Visiting Our Constitutional History
Former Montserrat Governor, David Taylor told Montserrat’ historian Howard A. Fergus: “In my time in Montserrat, Ministerial attempts to encroach on the Governor’s areas of responsibility and to challenge his powers were the normal stuff of day-to-day administration, as they are to a greater or lesser extent in all Territories”.
As part of the 25 years celebrations of the BVI Ministerial Government (introduced by the 1967 Constitution) Chief Minister H. Lavity Stoutt called for a Constitutional Review aimed at achieving the continued constitutional advance and good government of the BVI. The 1967 Constitution was revised and updated resulting in a new version that was introduced in June 1977.
In a scholarly 1996 article, Fergus observed that there was little available scope “between the (then) Constitution and full internal self-government short of making the Governor…a figurehead and a purely ceremonial officer…” This dilemma is shared by other UK Overseas Territories of the Caribbean, says Fergus, adding that “if quality governance were a critical criterion for constitutional advancement as a colony, the BVI would not immediately qualify.” A member of the 1993 Constitutional Commission appointed by the UK government was told by an elderly witness to tell Her Majesty that “we are satisfied as we are”. In fact “advancement” was viewed by a large segment of BVI voters as a slippery slope to independence. As for the call to trim the powers of the Governor, one of the commissioners told the media that such proposals would lead London to ask if the BVI wants independence. The 2007 Constitution, which came into force on 15 June, superseded and vastly improved the 1977 one and established a greater degree of self-government; it also introduced new appellations: the Chief Minister was renamed the Premier, the Executive Council was rechristened Cabinet and the Legislative Council was renamed the House of Assembly. Most importantly, the 2007 Constitution included a comprehensive chapter on the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.