Statement by Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
Premier of the Virgin Islands and Minister of Finance
20 May, 2021
Update on Current Matters
Good day and God’s Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands and beyond.
I wish to provide a brief update to you the people of the Virgin Islands on your Government’s participation in and cooperation with the ongoing Commission of Inquiry (COI).
On Tuesday, 18 May, 2021, I appeared before the Commission in my capacity as Premier of the Virgin Islands and Minister of Finance to represent the people of the Virgin Islands and to ensure that as your Government we continue to support the COI – because your Government believes in a transparent COI that will allow for a just outcome.
Your Government continues to demonstrate our support for a transparent COI by ensuring that whatever information is requested of your Government by the Commission is furnished.
To date, your Government has forwarded to the Commission more than 85,000 pages of information – and this is not just for the elected officials, but for the entire of Government operations for both past and present administrations. Your Government has complied with the request for information by the COI.
85,000 pages is a lot of information. It is a sizeable volume of documentation and it has been provided in good faith. Wherever there may be any anomalies or shortcomings due to human or machine error in the reproduction of photocopies or labelling, your Government remains committed to rectifying these promptly. Wherever there is any need for clarification on any submission, your Government is ready to promptly address these. We have indicated to the Commission that it needs to just communicate its wishes or its needs, and your Government will comply without hesitation. Your Government wants a transparent COI and we will do whatever is required of us so that this is achieved.
I wish to thank the Commissioner, Sir Gary Hickinbottom, and his COI team, for the opportunity to appear before the COI on behalf of the Government and people of the Virgin Islands and to answer the questions put to me.
May I say that the questions put to me by the Commission were on a wide range of focus areas including, but not limited to, Mr Claude Skelton-Cline, EZ Shipping, Mrs Patsy Lake, Mr Bevis Sylvester and many other persons and programmes and projects. These were all answered faithfully, truthfully, accurately and in detail.
I was also questioned about allegations of corruption under the last Administration, when I was a Member of the Opposition and also, for a time, Leader of the Opposition.
I was glad to answer those questions truthfully, factually and accurately, and I was happy to have the opportunity to put into proper context the concerns and questions that I had publicly asked in regard to Governance during that period of time, and also to put into context all the other questions that were asked.
I would thus like to further advise the Commission and you the Virgin Islands people that I would be happy to return before the COI to answer any further questions that may be required of me.
I have always said that as Premier, as your elected leader of the Virgin Islands people and as a person who is firm in my faith in our God, that I have no fear of the truth. Your Government and your Premier have nothing to hide, and we will be fully cooperative to ensure a transparent COI is carried out thereby to ensure a just outcome.
From my first-hand experience, having appeared before the Commission, I believe it is fair for me to share with you a few of my personal and professional reflections on the process, especially since I am sure other persons will also be participating in this process.
And may I reiterate once again that your Government, and I as Premier, encourage all citizens, residents and Government employees to cooperate with the COI.
Our desire is to see as robust, fair and transparent a process as far as humanly and legally possible.
As I have mentioned, over 85,000 pages of information has been submitted by the Government of the Virgin Islands to the Commission. This information spans the various Ministries and agencies of present and past Administrations, and numerous areas of policy and programmes, over various periods of time, as stated earlier.
In some instances, subjects and topics overlap Ministries, Departments and agencies, and in some cases they do not.
85,000 pages is just from the Government and its agencies alone. There is sure to be additional information from citizens and other persons to add to growing this large volume and wide range of subjects.
My first hand observation is that transparency, efficiency and effectiveness can be enhanced if persons summoned to the appear before the Commission are advised of what subject they will be questioned on, so that they can ensure they are prepared and they walk with the correct supporting documents and so forth.
I am not saying that the Commission should tell the witness what exact questions they will be asked, but merely what topic areas they should come prepared to address – given that you are talking about 85,000 pages of information.
It seems to me to be only fair to provide sufficient information and guidance to ensure that witnesses are fully prepared and equipped to assist the Commission in its quest for fairness and to uncovering the truth – whether the truth is good or ugly.
But this is only my observation as a participant in the process and it is up to the lone Commissioner to ultimately decide how he will conduct his Inquiry.
Secondly, I am pleased to see that one of the things that I advocated for since the COI was announced by former Governor Augustus Jaspert on 18 January, 2021, which is the public access to transcripts of the COI hearings, has been taken on board. Transcripts are being made available on the COI website.
I do continue to believe that in the interest of fairness, transparency and public information, that it is a disservice to the Virgin Islands people to have part of the picture available to the public and part of the picture concealed from the public – and then to expect the public to form a vision of the complete picture, even though it is a fact that they have been deprived of the totality of the information.
The public deserves to have the benefit of the complete truth. The public deserves to have the benefit of being able to analyse the information and to form their own conclusions – not to be fed snippets.
All transcripts of all witnesses should be made available to the public.
I further maintain that the proceedings of hearings should be broadcast on the internet and the radio, in the least. While some transcripts are being made available, not everyone is able to sit down and read these massive number of pages. Persons who have challenges reading would be left worse off. However, broadcast of the proceedings makes it easier for the public to access and digest the proceedings.
It is important to note that the media can only do so much. The media has editorial constraints in terms of lengths of stories and reports, the number of stories they can carry from each sitting and so forth, competition with other news stories and other media houses.
The media will make editorial decisions in how much they present and how it is presented based on the practical constraints they face.
And this is no criticism of the media or how they choose to present the news to attract readership, audience and advertising – but merely to point out that what the media is able to carry in terms of coverage is only a snippet of the whole proceedings, and in the process a lot of information coming out of the Inquiry will get lost to the public.
The danger to the public interest is that when members of the public become attached to snippets and catchy, sensational headlines, and feel that those represent all that a witness said or everything that happened in the sitting, then the result is not public information but public misinformation.
What you have is persons in the public with bits and pieces of incomplete information trying the Inquiry in the public domain. And this cannot, surely, be an objective of the COI or the persons who sponsored it. This is also not the intention of your Government.
Again, this is not because of the media who have done their jobs within their best abilities, but because members of the public do not have the full information and full context. And most of all, Members of the public may be too busy to read the entire transcripts and would depend on what they read in the news with those snippets of the entire transcripts, thereby not getting the full picture as would have been the case if these proceedings are televised and brought on radio.
But again, it is up to the lone Commissioner to ultimately decide how he will conduct his Inquiry.
Permit me to quickly say a few words on the matter of the retirement Benefits for Retired Legislators.
This is an issue that has been outstanding for over 30 years. Previous Governments and persons who served in previous Governments – some of whom are today trying to scandalize this initiative – had the responsibility to settle this matter once and for all.
They did not deal with the matter. They felt it was a “hot potato” no matter when it was dealt with. They felt it might not be good for their re-election. As a matter of fact, they are now spinning it that we have done it thinking that we will not be re-elected. So, they sidestepped the issue and left it for someone else to deal with.
But this is not uncommon, as since taking office, this Administration has had to deal with a lot of issues that could be considered hot potatoes by many persons.
And the examples are there. The regularization of persons who were here for years – a hot potato; the can kicked down the road and left for this Administration. The turning around of the traffic in Road Town – a hot potato left for the can to be kicked down the road and had to be dealt with by this Administration. The starting of the repairs to the Market Square – a hot potato; the can kicked down the road; left for this Administration. And the list goes on and on.
But, in terms of this one, this is not the only issue of remuneration and compensation that they have run away from. There are others.
The benefits for judges is another issue that has been 40 years overdue.
The judiciary has been complaining that the packages were inadequate and not sufficient to attract the desired talent in the numbers required. And this is an important issue because judges face a lot of constraints when they enter that profession. There are limits on what kind of work they can and cannot do, for instance. And that is why you need to have good packages that are fair in terms of the retirement packages.
After this issue was neglected for 40 years, your Government has taken the bull by the horns once again and we have addressed the matter of the benefits package for judges in terms of their retirement package.
The situation with legislators is very similar. When you are a legislator, especially there are Good Governance standards and where your Government has further strengthened the Good Governance systems, you cannot engage in any and any business activity as if you are not a legislator and as if you were a private citizen.
So you cannot expect legislators to serve, be unable to freely engage in business activities – cannot bid on projects because of perceptions, and then after they have given a lifetime of service, you send them off with nothing to take care of themselves until they die.
And while persons may not agree, that is the reality for many past legislators. Every single week I receive calls from legislators who have served asking once and for all to address this problem.
This is not a salary increase, by no stretch of the imagination – because that would not be correct in this current climate.
This is very similar to the situation with the judges. This was 30 years of being postponed because former Governments were afraid to touch the issue. And your Government has said enough is enough; we will deal with this issue as well as many other issues where the can continues to be kicked down the road.
And may I point out that it is not just the retired legislators and the judges whose issues we have taken up.
Your Government has taken up the review of the compensation packages for all our public officers. But, that is not a legislative amendment. That requires more.
Public officers will tell you the struggles they face. Many have upgraded their skills and qualifications at their own expense. They are performing well beyond their ancient job descriptions. And their remuneration is outdated and insufficient.
So, together with the Deputy Governor’s Office, your current Government is addressing the remuneration for public officers by making sure that we do a job reclassification as well as salary revision.
I am one of those firm believers along with my Government that persons should be paid what they are worth.
Past Governments have run from this matter because they were afraid of what it would cost to pay public officers more just and equitable salaries and benefits.
But, if you pay a man what he is worth, he will give you and the country even more than what would have been expected. Efficiency automatically brings effectiveness, and effectiveness automatically brings increase in revenue.
Your present Government is saying that we cannot do that injustice to our public officers, so we will do right by our public officers and start the process of upgrading the terms and conditions for public officers and we will push to make sure we get it done.
And might I add that none of these funds except for the public officers will be funds that are needed anytime now, anytime soon.
So, we are recognizing that more and more we have to tackle issues of great concern. And that is why your Government has made sure that we have moved towards improving and further strengthening Good Governance. This is not just a buzzword; but in terms of ensuring that this Government walks the walk, it will be proven from research and through the records of the Honourable House, that this Government is the only Government to bring forward so many pieces of legislation to strengthen Good Governance. We are currently going towards the Second and Third Readings of the Contractor General legislation and also the Whistleblower legislation. And we are doing public consultation with the Integrity in Public Life legislation.
We have passed numerous legislation to strengthen our Good Governance in our Financial Services Sector – some as recently as just a few days ago. And we will continue to do this.
In the short order, I will bring a speech to be able to drill more down into our economy and what is being done. But I can say this; that we cannot continue to think for moment that COVID-19 has disappeared. It is still here. At current we do have 33 positive active cases; albeit that the majority had been captured under the Day-0 testing and the Day-4 testing.
It shows that our protocols continue to work. But it also shows that the more we open our economy, the more we increase the risk of COVID-19 coming to the shores. But our protocols will help us to keep it secure.
And I cannot leave without saying that while I respect the views and the rights of those who do not believe in the vaccine, as a Government we continue to push and encourage persons to be vaccinated. Because it is the only credible option that we do have at this time to ensure that we fight COVID-19 as best as we can and save lives and livelihoods.
So, with these few words, I will invite questions from media and the floor and I wish to advise that your Government will make ourselves available on a bi-weekly basis so that we can continue to keep the public informed and to answer questions from the media.
We have already started through some of the Ministers to keep office hours on different parts of Tortola and the Sister Islands, and that schedule – in terms of the total in-depth details of that schedule – will be forthcoming shortly so that we can ensure that Ministers and Junior Ministers – and wherever, necessary the entire Government – would be available to answer questions directly, because you cannot be private in the public.
In BVILove, I thank you and may God forever bless these beautiful Virgin Islands and her people.