Why risk tainting the EC?
Now that the local government elections have been announced the political horses are off to the races.
It is not enough and should not even be necessary for one to hope that a sense of decency, goodwill, decorum, and harmony will be the order of the day; that both sides of the political divide will conduct themselves with the requisite restraint and good moral sense that is expected of those who are asking the people of Jamaica for a job.
This is precisely what our politicians are doing when they come to us seeking political power. The political culture that we have indulged since Independence has not assisted our people to understand this; therefore, they do not carefully scrutinise the applicant and convince themselves that the person has the requisite skills, persona, and temperament to be employed in that job.
If they were doing this, many of those who make it to power would not have done so. It has become even more difficult today in the great divide that exists between the two major political parties that have alternated as Government over these 62 years. So I might be asking for a great deal more than the culture can or will allow at this time, even though it should be quite a straightforward and simple proposition.
But here we are. At times like these the functions of the office of the political ombudsman takes on added meaning. As an arbiter of good political conduct, the ombudsman ought to be cognisant of the need for politicians to conduct themselves with the necessary decorum. Provocations from both sides, which in our culture have led to political violence, must be treated with urgency. In fact, the office emerged out of the political violence of the 1970s onwards, which resulted in unnecessary loss of lives.
The office has been vacant for close to 14 months and the big question that is now being debated is whether it should be subsumed under that of the Electoral Commission or be allowed to operate independently, with a revised structure and mandate.
There was a robust debate in Parliament about this matter. The Government seemed intent on rushing it through but rightfully ran up against a stonewall of Opposition. The Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), having defended the position in the past, is no longer amenable to this change. Some have criticised the party for this, including the Government. But room must always be made for a change of opinion about a matter, especially one that has allowed too much water to flow under its bridge.
But the Government is under the gun of the impending elections and undoubtedly thought that this matter should be handled with dispatch before political campaigning was robustly engaged. But why wait for this last hour to deal with the matter? Now, in the dead of night, a matter of this far-reaching importance must be rushed without the requisite input from the public and Parliament? The Opposition claimed that they saw the Bill only when it was tabled in the Parliament. This is reprehensible for a Bill of this magnitude. The need for public ventilation of this matter should not be subject to the short-term caprice of a political agenda. Gladly, it was grudgingly withdrawn.
And there are good reasons why it should not be rushed. I do not believe a cogent argument has been made to put this office under the Electoral Commission (EC). I believe the country will rue the day if this is done. Further, I do not believe that those who make the argument in the affirmative are sufficiently seized of the history of political victimisation, intimidation, division, and violence that have long bedevilled our political culture. If they are aware, they are being disingenuous in not appreciating the hard work that has been done in making the EC the honourable body that it is today.
Space does not allow for a full-throated analysis of what this sordid history has been and why the EC came into being, but it is well known by some of those who are the chief proponents of placing the ombudsman with that office. It is only sufficient to say at this point that it is the formation of the EC, first the electoral advisory committee, that has been instrumental in bringing a sense of respectability to our electoral process and which has made it a highly respected international body.
We cannot afford to squander the gains we have made. It will be a taint on the body of the EC, which we will regret. It is not silly to believe, as Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck assumed, that this august body will be so tainted. No one is saying that the commissioners, who have behaved commendably to date, will ever allow their integrity to be sullied by engagement in partisan activity. But in Jamaica, as elsewhere, we know that perception is more than reality. So while the commissioners will behave respectably, as I believe they would, we must be mindful of the taint of perception which may lead many to believe that they acted in a partisan manner.
The commissioners must be above the rough and tumble of the divisive politics we have practised over the years. Putting the office of the Ombudsman with the EC is too great a risk to bear in this respect. Think, Minister Chuck! Why risk it?
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.