MEMBER of Parliament for St Catherine Southern Fitz Jackson is cautioning the Government over its plan to give the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) the powers of a political ombudsman.
Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck recently told the Jamaica Observer that he is trying to fast-track the legislation to give political referee power to the ECJ, while ensuring that it has more teeth than in the past when 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],” said Chuck.
But a concerned Jackson told the Observer that it would be foolhardy for the Government to tinker with the ECJ which has served the country so well over the past 40 plus years.
“First, I want to make it clear that having a political ombudsman has my full support, and it has full support of the People’s National Party that I have been a part of for many years,” said Jackson who, on Saturday, was named to the Opposition’s new shadow Cabinet as a member without portfolio with special responsibility for affairs concerning Portmore.
Jackson pointed out that the ECJ was formed in an attempt to end the political tribalism, violence, bloodshed, and deaths which occurred in the mid-1970s leading up to the 1980 General Election.
“Out of the wisdom of the leadership of both political parties the ECJ was created; this essentially removed the conduct of elections from each incumbent government. In the past, the incumbent governments appointed and supervised the conduct of elections and all related matters, including political boundaries of constituencies and parish council divisions.
“The political leadership at the time said, ‘No, we have seen the consequences of that,’…and the ECJ was created. In its present form the structure of the ECJ and its modus operandi enjoy the full support and cooperation of both political parties — and we have reaped the benefits of that for over 43 years.
“The ECJ is perhaps one of our most outstanding political achievements. Forty-odd years with all the local level and the parliamentary level elections that have been held, neither political party has challenged the results because of how fair they have been managed by the ECJ,” added Jackson.
“We have to preserve that institution, we have to strengthen it, and we have to make sure that we don’t do any tinkering that can possibly compromise it. That must be treated as sacred,” he argued.
According to Jackson, for the Government to now unilaterally impose the work of the political ombudsman on the ECJ should be of grave concern to all Jamaicans, even if the decision is well-intentioned.
The matter, he said, needs to be discussed at all levels of the society before any decision is made.
“It is a proposal that is being rushed through — and that is unacceptable,” said Jackson even as he admitted that with a local government election looming the country needs to have a mechanism in place to settle political disputes.
But Jackson was adamant that the time line proposed by Chuck is not practical and urged the Andrew Holness-led Administration not to go that route.
“Let us, instead, consider some interim arrangement that can be instituted going into the local government election — expected within a matter of weeks — but don’t structurally adjust the ECJ in the way proposed by Minister Chuck without thorough examination and consultation with more than the two political parties by including civil society and other groups,” urged Jackson.
“We could, perhaps in the interim, between the leaders of both parties, agree on an interim referee — not a permanently appointed ombudsman but somebody to function in the fashion…to take us through the next election. It is something that requires some thinking, and that is the reason why I say let us open it up and engage more people who can lend their thoughts to it and we come up with something that is acceptable.
“The Government has a super majority in Parliament, and it can use that to pass the legislation, but I believe to act in that way would be an abuse of that authority,” added Jackson.