Parliament urged to give political ombudsman real power

Parliament urged to give political ombudsman real power

Senior staff reporter

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

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POLITICAL Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown is calling on Parliament to give teeth to the functions of her office to enable it to apply penalties and sanctions for breaches of the code of political conduct, and to create certain offences in law.

Since the creation of the office by way of interim legislation 18 years ago, no move has yet been made to give the Office of the Political Ombudsman constitutional protection, as per section three of the constitution, affording it certain powers that are critical to advancing its work.

“Section three of the Political Ombudsman Interim Act has directed the Parliament to give constitutional protection. That has still not been done. What that means is that any day, Parliament can just close the office,” Parchment Brown stated yesterday at the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.

Integrating the code of conduct into the legislation would also create particular offences. One suggestion is that politicians should pay a caution fee or a deposit before they are allowed to mount election campaign paraphernalia, which would be returned if the items are removed post-election, as mandated.

“We do think there is need for certain offences, for example using funds to unlawfully influence elections,” she noted, pointing to the provision for bribery under the Representation of the People Act. If the Office of the Political Ombudsman uncovers a breach of the code which equates to bribery, it is currently not empowered to make a report to Director of Public Prosecutions.

“We should have that ability to identify and pass it on for prosecution,” she said.

Civil society groups and representatives of academia, political parties and other players have made recommendations to the Office of the Political Ombudsman in its post-September 3, 2020 General Election review as to how its functions can be improved to include fines and penalties.

For now, the office is viewed as a toothless tiger, but Parchment Brown argued that its mandate goes much further than being a political overseer or referee. She pointed out that since 2015 the office has engaged in three national and eight national by-elections, which means there has been some sort of election every year since she took office.

She stressed that having been immersed in the inner workings of the office, she is even more convinced now of its necessity to the country's political and civic landscape, noting that she had worked closely with the previous ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair.

Appointed Jamaica's first political ombudsman in 2002, Blair resigned in 2013 amidst criticism that the office was irrelevant.

Yesterday Parchment Brown said notwithstanding the office's lack of power to impose penalties, it has been able to secure some confidence when its recommendations are accepted by political leaders.

“In many situations when I make recommendations I may not have had a direct response to say 'Yes, we are going to do what you have suggested,' but I have seen actions taken which demonstrate that the political leaders have taken on board the recommendations,” she said.

Engaging those alleged to have breached the code of political conduct at various junctures has yielded some fruit. “People hate being called in by the political ombudsman, they feel it's a personal attack on their integrity and on their rights. But, I have found they leave with an idea that they have been heard, that what they did was really not correct, and I have not had further complaints against the vast majority of those with whom I have worked,” she outlined.

Urging the political directorate to back the institutions which are creatures of Parliament, Parchment Brown said: “We hope to see the legislative changes that give confidence in the idea that our institutions work, and that when institutions are created the lawmakers really want them to make a difference. We want to encourage the political leaders to stand up for the institutions they have created, whether it's the police, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the political ombudsman, the Integrity Commission.”

She said all Parliamentarians and councillors should be knowledgeable about the functions of the office, and should publicly support its decisions.

“You don't have to own a decision made by the ombudsman on the day, but we would like to see them own the duty of the institution to deal with a particular matter, and to hold us to account,” she said.

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