Political ombudsman push
JUSTICE Minister Delroy Chuck is pushing to have a political referee in place by the end of January, and if he has his way, the ref will be able to do more than just blow a whistle at people who breach the Political Code of Conduct.
Jamaica has been without a referee for the political process since the Office of the Political Ombudsman was shuttered in November 2022.
At that time the Government had indicated that the role of the political ombudsman would be taken over by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ).
But with the country about to enter a political campaign for the next local government election, which is constitutionally due by the end of February 2024, the calls for a political ombudsman to be in place to monitor activities on the campaign trail have grown louder.
Late last week Chuck told the Jamaica Observer that he is trying to fast-track the legislation while ensuring that it is stronger than what existed in the past where the political ombudsman had no power to punish those who broke the rules.
“The Political Ombudsman Act, we want to adjust it to say that its functions will be carried out by the Electoral Commission, firstly and secondly, we just want to say that there will be enforcement where penalties can be imposed from apology to suspension and…with the Electoral Commission [having even more power].
“So the candidates, if they misbehave and they don’t apologise, or if the misbehaviour is so egregious, the Electoral Commission could in fact stop them from continuing to run,” said Chuck.
“The truth of the matter is that we have had quite a number of discussions and we are looking at how other jurisdictions ensure that where there is misconduct [punishment] can be enforced by the Electoral Commission with some penalties,” added Chuck.
He said the proposal now is that only the four selected members of the ECJ would enforce the Political Code of Conduct in a similar fashion to how they operate with campaign financing, with the chairman casting the deciding vote if there is a tie.
This would mean that the representatives of the two major political parties, who are members of the ECJ, would not have any role in enforcing the rules.
“I have been having many meetings, virtually with the chairman and other members of the Electoral Commission, and they have been working with me and advising my legal team as to how it could operate.
“A member of the committee shared with us a number of overseas legislation, in particular the penalties that would be enforced for misconduct of candidates or even MPs [Members of Parliament]. So we have a lot of material going through,” added Chuck.
He said he has met with two people who served for a long time in the Office of the Political Ombudsman and it is proposed that they be moved from where they are now seconded to the Houses of Parliament and work with the ECJ in its monitoring of breaches of the Political Code of Conduct.
In January Chuck announced that a Cabinet submission was being prepared detailing how the functions of the political ombudsman will be subsumed into the ECJ.
Since then, the legislation has not been taken to Parliament, but according to Chuck, that should be remedied shortly.
“I had hoped that we would have completed it by now, but I am hoping that early in the new year we can take the matter to Cabinet for Cabinet to sign off, and once this is done, soon after the new Act would be presented to Parliament.
“I have told my team that I really would like to have this done in January. But in all sincerity, legislation is not done overnight, but this is of such importance [that] I have asked them to get this expedited so that in January we can have it passed in Parliament so that it is in operation hopefully by the end of January. It is my hope. I am not promising, because you know, we just have to try,” said Chuck.
Recent issues on the political trail have prompted a number of organisations to call on the Government to restore the Office of the Political Ombudsman and not place its functions with the ECJ.
The organisations include the electoral watchdog group Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), which recently expressed concern that Jamaica is on the verge of entering a period of election campaigning without the benefit of having a specific person executing the functions of the political ombudsman.
In a release, CAFFE said it believes that the Office of the Political Ombudsman during periods of electioneering performs functions which are of “vital importance to our endeavours to maintain stability and ethical standards in our political pronouncements and activities”.
“CAFFE does not consider that it is prudent to submit to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica the ethical questions which are normally dealt with by the political ombudsman. Saddling the ECJ with this responsibility overlooks the reality that its membership includes politicians,” the release said.
The Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) also urged the Government to abort its stated intention to subsume the Office of the Political Ombudsman into the ECJ.
“Instead, we call for the reinforcement of the Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act (2002) to give greater focus to the monitoring of political conduct by vesting greater power in the Office of the Political Ombudsman and the subsequent appointment of a suitably qualified official to fill this post,” the JCC said in a recent press release.