By Mellica McPherson
Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Julian Fraser has joined Premier Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith, and other legislators’ call for the Territory’s Constitution to be amended. Albeit, Hon. Fraser’s call was not as piercing as another that was made during the 31 October sitting of the House of Assembly.
While debating the Motion to increase the salaries of the two Junior Ministers, Hon. Fraser said: “Madame Speaker I am getting tired now of the Constitution of the Virgin Islands being treated as words on paper, and not with the degree of seriousness that the members who negotiated the Constitution meant for it to be.”
Hon. Fraser said that he came to the realization that the Constitution needed amendments years ago: “When this constitution amendment was made Madame Speaker I pointed out to the Premier and the Governor that there is need for further amendments of the Constitution…”
However, he explained that the required amendments are not solely for changes, but also to keep the document as current as possible. He added: “Madame Speaker it’s human beings that made the Constitution and every time we find a flaw. I think the Governor knows that this is in here that’s why it’s being done, and it needs to be corrected…Those of us who have the responsibility to make sure it does happen; once it is brought to their attention, Madame Speaker it should be done,” he added.
While the Leader of the Opposition did not announce any issues with the authority of the Governor specifically for the changes recommended, he did mention that he is not comfortable with some of the Governor’s powers: “I have pointed out before as far as appointment of people, the power of the Governor to a point,” he said.
Hon. Skelton Directs Constitutional Call to Governor’s Powers
On the other hand, Minister for Health, Hon. Ronnie Skelton was not very subtle in making his call for Constitutional changes, and a look at the Governor’s powers. He spoke passionately on the subject: “Our country has gotten this far in spite of the British government; we have done it by hard work and we need to recognize it… Somebody thinks it wasn’t done by hard work – it was done otherwise. We are being marginalized so to speak, and we need to stand up and say this is our country and we built it.”
In explaining his comment about marginalization, the Health Minister said that Minister’s powers are being taken away under the guise of public good, and he used the Governor’s disaster management portfolio to illustrate his point.
Hon. Skelton said: “What we need to stop doing as elected officials is that the power we have under the constitution as is written, we [need to]stop allowing the Governor to take that power away from us under some guise of a civil servant or public good of that nature. If you don’t be careful it will happen because everything could be classified as a disaster. If you classify things as a disaster, then the Constitution says the Governor is in charge. If you consider something to be a public emergency, the Governor is in charge — so, we go on the side.”
“Most of us in this House have [more]hurricane experience – disaster experience than anybody coming out of England to sit as Governor. We know how to take our country, and put it back together after a hurricane, and we were good at it. Now we have somebody with no experience – actually no hurricane experience, say they are in charge of the thing. That bothers me,” Hon. Skelton explained.
He further expressed his concerns and recalled the days when the Territory had an Administrator instead of a Governor: “I hear my mother talk about when there was an administrator – he was the doctor, the judge, the executioner, he was everything. Those days are no longer here, and now we have a governorship that seems to believe that those days should come back; and I am saying no.”
Premier is Clear on Constitution Position
Before departing the Territory for official visit to Asia and the UK, Premier, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith during a press conference on 12 October announced that the reduction of some of the powers that the Governor holds is one of the areas to be discussed as Government moves forward with constitutional reform plans.
In fact, Premier Smith told reporters that the reform is being considered as the BVI’s Constitution approaches the ten-year mark. “As our Constitution turns 10 years old it is only appropriate that we consider modifications to our current constitutional arrangements to better enable us to meet new and emerging challenges in the 21st century,” Hon. Smith said.
He also pointed out that he intends to discuss the matter of constitutional changes with the UK: “I will also raise this in the UK Parliament at the House of Commons where OT Leaders will meet members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee’s support will be critical in building momentum for constitutional changes,” Hon. Smith said.
On the local level, Hon. Smith disclosed that a meeting on the proposed reform was already held: “We’ve had one meeting so far to organize how we will be taking forward the discussions. We are about to appoint a group of persons who will be responsible for taking the discussions through the territory.”
As it relates to the proposed changes he said: “What we will be looking at really is what the people of the country would like to see as far as constitutional reform is concerned. We (lawmakers) of course would have some ideas…We are looking at how the governor can have less responsibility for the territory, and the elected officials of the territory have some more responsibilities.”
UK Government Said No to Constitutional Changes
During the 2007-2011 administration, then Premier and House of Assembly Member Emeritus Hon. Ralph T. O’Neal told members of the media at a press conference in 2011 that the United Kingdom Government did not agree that some constitutional changes should be made to the 2007 constitution at that time, despite calls that are being made for such changes by BV Islanders.
In making the announcement the Premier read a letter that was sent by UK MP with responsibilities for Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham in which the MP explained that certain initiatives were suggested in consideration of the UK interest and that of the territory.
However, Hon. O’Neal said that he had found himself in a little difficulty because from experience he has learned that the quality of life and other suitable things improve with constitution changes.
The then Premier read an excerpt of the letter which said: “We believe that at this point in the history of our relations with the territory, at a time when a decade of constitution revision is coming to a close, the time is not right to embark on further changes. Rather our strategy is to make sure the constitution arrangement works effectively to promote the best interest of the territory and the United Kingdom Government.” Hon. O’Neal told the media that he did not agree with that statement.
According to Hon. O’Neal, the letter referred to the Constitution as a modern one: “I say the present Constitution may be modern compared to the one from 1976; with some power for Ministers; but as far as I am concerned, my own view is that a lot of changes are needed. After working it for four years you find out there is still a lot of power concentrated in the Governor and that some of the provisions are outdated.”
One of the areas for Constitutional amendment suggested by the then Premier was the area relating to the appointment of the Deputy Governor, which the then Premier said that he believes should leave room for input from the Cabinet: “The Governor has all the authority to appoint the Deputy Governor and that is wrong. It is insulting! It must be with some type of agreement with Premier, the cabinet whatever…,” Hon. O’Neal said.