It was a historic event last night, January 9, as the three candidates vying for the District 9 seat in the upcoming General Election, faced each other in the first ever political debate in that district.
While the event was planned as a debate, what came into fruition was a relatively calm discussion of what candidates are offering the voters of their district, as solutions to some of the district’s challenges.
Current Representative, Hon. Dr. Hubert O’Neal, who is seeking re-election on the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) ticket; Progressive Virgin Islands Movement’s (PVIM) candidate, Mr. Jose de Castro; and the Virgin Islands Party’s (VIP), Mr. Vincent Wheatley, gathered in the packed Catholic Community Centre on Virgin Gorda where they addressed pressing issues facing that district, especially neglect.
Neglect And Solutions
The candidates were asked to reveal how they plan to tackle the neglect of the sister islands, a perceived problem that some see as age old.
“Neglect is seen every day and felt in the pockets of persons in the Ninth District. It’s not something that’s a common perception, but it’s actual, it’s real,” the PVIM candidate stated.
His solution to this is the creation of a Ninth District budget, something that he said he would prioritise in his first six months in office, should he succeed.
According to Mr. de Castro, “The Ninth District contributes a lot of money for the government, but we don’t really see much of it back in terms of infrastructural development, in terms of tourism development, in terms of healthcare development; we don’t see it.”
“So, what I propose is to have a Ninth District budget to ensure that every year there is a minimum amount of money that is spent in the Ninth District to help develop. With that we can help develop our tourism product,” he stated.
There is a critical need to develop the district’s economy, which is supported by the tourism sector, he stressed.
He also told residents, “We know the pains of living here. We have no banks, we have to go to Tortola for a lot of services that have to do with the public services. We have issues with our education, we have issues with our healthcare.”
The political newcomer’s proposal for a Ninth District budget was however criticized by current District 9 Representative, Dr. O’Neal, who said such a thing would be unconstitutional.
“The idea of doing a separate Ninth District budget to me is unconstitutional,” he stated.
Photo Credit: BVI Platinum News
Dr. O’Neal, who is also currently the Junior Minister of Tourism, admitted that the district has been neglected; however, while he pointed out instances of such—some dating back to the 1970’s— he did not provide much solutions.
“It is not just a perception, it is a reality,” he stated.
Dr. O’Neal even pointed out very recent incidents of this neglect, even while he was and still is the District Representative.
“Just recently, Virgin Gorda Airport closed down for want of a fire tender. It was closed down by the regulators because there is not an operational fire tender…so there are instances of neglect in the sister islands,” he told those gathered.
He posited that the District Representative can only fix this problem if they are in a high position in Government, such as a Cabinet member.
“It is only at this level that you have strong representation for where the concerns of the sister islands can be well represented. So, that is my solution to address the obvious neglect that goes on in the sister islands,” he declared.
Despite a number of issues being raised as it relates to the neglect of the sister islands, such as the lack of schools and health facilities, when asked about his top three priorities in the first six months, should he return to office, he indicated that he would be seeking to continue some ongoing initiatives.
“I am going to work with my Government. We started a housing recovery programme, it was funded with $15 million; however, it may not be enough and I will fight to get more money allocated to fund this programme so that we can get the persons back in their homes. That would be my first priority to get persons back in their homes,” Dr. O’Neal divulged, later adding, “Also I will be involved in restoring the development of the resorts.”
The lack of banks on Virgin Gorda, he added, is something he would seek to rectify—an issue that he battled over the last several months.
Meanwhile, former Sister Islands Coordinator, Mr. Wheatley, who is seeking election on the VIP slate, came sharp with his answers and proposals, telling those present, “You will be hard pressed to find a more dedicated, a more energetic, a more engaging and more experienced candidate than me. I take politics very seriously.”
He claimed that the neglect was something he sought to address in his former post, but while proposals were made, they did not go further and in some cases, they were stymied by a lack of funding.
Mr. Wheatley boldly declared, “To combat the neglect One of the first things I would do is to rename my former post of Sister Islands Coordinator to Coordinator and Planning Officer and place that in the Ministry where it belongs, which is Premier Fahie’s Office, and provide for the first time in history, funding for that post as a line item in the budget.”
He is also proposing special funding for District Nine.
“I’m proposing a special financial vehicle for sister islands, in our case, the Ninth District development fund, partially funded by Government and partially funded by private donations managed by the people and projects chosen by a town council of the people, placed in the hands of the people, and not in hands of politicians.”
When it comes to priority projects, he said he has not yet determined such since he would first need to consult with the people.
At the end of the night, the three candidates agreed that it was a “spirited” discussion, and that some of the odes put forward by their opponents were practical, while some would not work.
Chairman of the NDP, Hon. Myron Walwyn, who was in attendance with other members of his slate, posited that “it was a very good debate,” adding, “Some very good opinions and arguments were put forward. Some were practical, some were not, but certainly it gave the public an opportunity to participate.”
However, he said that voters should not determine the fittest person to represent them based on the debate.
“I want to say though that you can’t necessarily judge the best candidate to represent you simply from a debate. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and the NDP Government has a very good track record here in Virgin Gorda,” he emphasised.
Nevertheless, he has challenged the leaders of the other parties contesting the election to a similar debate.
“I called for a debate of the leaders and I’m waiting for anybody who is ready to step forward and debate me,” he firmly stated.
Chairman of the VIP, Hon. Andrew Fahie said that he would like to see more of these debates, but they must be as balanced as the first.
“I encourage it for all districts, but it has to be properly organised just like this, of course independent. The model of this has to be copied everywhere else if time permits because we’re judging that it’s going to be a very early election for various reasons,” Hon. Fahie stressed.