No need to hurry…let’s thoroughly discuss political ombudsman issue
Many older Jamaicans were pleasantly surprised on the night of February 25, 2016 when the then outgoing People’s National Party (PNP) Government accepted without rancour its defeat by just one seat in the parliamentary election.
Readers will recall that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won 32-31, the closest ever general election contest in Jamaica’s history.
In our view, the smooth transition, despite the tight margin, reflected trust in the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) that had taken over the running of elections decades earlier.
Even up to the 1990s, before respect for the ECJ and related reforms took hold, a one-seat majority for either party would have led to extreme tension, and very possibly bloodshed, with allegations of electoral malfeasance flying from every direction.
We agree with Member of Parliament Mr Fitz Jackson of the PNP that, post-1980, the action by the leadership of both our political parties in implementing electoral reforms should be numbered among Jamaica’s outstanding achievements.
Before then, as he reminded this newspaper, incumbent governments conducted elections and related matters, including the setting of boundaries for constituencies and political divisions.
Inevitably, that situation — dating back to long before political independence from Britain in 1962 — led to allegations, quarrels and worse, due to alleged gerrymandering and other political chicanery.
The ECJ apart, concerns about the upholding of ethical standards and a political code of conduct in relation to political parties and campaigning led to the appointment of a political ombudsman.
In 2022, the Government shut down the Office of the Political Ombudsman, saying it would save more than $30 million annually. Justice Minister Delroy Chuck insisted at the time that the decision was unrelated to then political ombudsman Mrs Donna Parchment Brown, whose term had ended.
Mr Chuck said then that the functions of the ombudsman would be “subsumed under the electoral commission…” as had been agreed in Parliament a decade earlier.
Now we hear that the Government is proposing to push through legislation by the end of January for that plan to take effect.
However, we note that not just Mr Jackson but civil society groups, including Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) and the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), have called on the Government to pull back from assigning political ombudsman responsibilities to the ECJ.
Mr Chuck says the proposal is that only independent members of the ECJ would enforce the political code of conduct — excluding political party representatives.
Despite that, we note the caution from CAFFE that “…saddling the ECJ with this responsibility overlooks the reality that its membership includes politicians…”
And the JCC argues that, instead of burdening the ECJ, the Office of the Political Ombudsman should be strengthened with additional powers and “a suitably qualified official” appointed.
That aside, we agree with the view that a decision such as this should not be pushed through by the Government simply by using its overwhelming parliamentary majority.
It makes sense, in our view, for there to be public consultation prior to any legislation ahead of parliamentary elections, due by late 2025.
Meantime, we believe Mr Jackson’s suggestion for an “interim arrangement” that would allow “an interim referee” to take charge of political ombudsman’s duties ahead of local government elections, expected by the end of February, is very sensible.