This is an edited version of a speech originally presented by Donna Parchment Brown at the Global Forum on Democracy.
The cry for equal rights and justice within and between countries is loud and persistent and reflect the beating heart of the democratic mission.
People are engaged in the social contract because they want to lead happy, fulfilled lives, and participate in elections when it aligns with their beliefs or to send a message of rejection when they do not believe voting will lead to the fulfilment of their goals. This is a challenge to contemporary democracy, which many citizens in Jamaica and across the Americas have found wanting.
How do we support our neighbours in the Americas with respect for their culture and traditions as we learn from one another as equals with different and sometimes similar challenges? The studies, entitled The Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and in the Americas, Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) 2014 and 2016/17, provide credible insights into this issue for North, Central, South America and the Caribbean. The studies revealed stable or declining support for democracy with declining trust in:
• national Parliaments
• national police
• political parties
But, the studies also showed increasing trust in the armed forces.
In Jamaica, the 2017 data showed an overall decrease in support for democracy and military coups under high crime or high corruption situations, yet trust in political parties rose by nine per cent.
Adherence to Rule of Law and Good Governance
Public sentiments have confirmed adherence to rule of law and good governance are important to rebooting democracy. In a campaign review study conducted by the Office of the Political Ombudsman following the September 3, 2020 General Election, stakeholders shared their perspective on some of the democratic challenges revealed to/faced by Jamaicans, evidenced by a low voter turnout of 38 per cent. These included:
• citizens lack of respect/trust for the political system
• perceived lack of integrity in the (campaign) proceedings
• COVID-19 risk
• political candidates' failure to stimulate interest of youth and other electors
• parties campaigning to their base
In the current climate of the triple C – COVID-19, crime, and corruption – how can our institutions shift public sentiment towards positive and structured engagement? Is this a re-emerging role for entities such as the political ombudsman whose mandate is to investigate misconduct of political actors which may breach the code or harm relations between supporters of different political parties.
Section 12 of the Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act outlines the functions of the political ombudsman: “Subject to this section, the political ombudsman shall investigate any action taken by a political party, its members, or its supporters, where he is of the opinion that such action –
a) constitutes or is likely to constitute a breach of any agreement, code or arrangement for the time being in force between or among political parties in Jamaica; or
b) is likely to prejudice good relations between the supporters of various political parties.”
Other stakeholder concerns related to a perception of flagrant disregard for the principles of the rule of law and for specific legislative provisions and principles include those relating to:
• unlawful influence of money in elections
• accountability gaps
• failure to fulfil political promises
Citizens may feel disempowered because they are unsure of where to go to address their everyday concerns, so they look to politicians, even when State agencies exist to directly meet their concerns.
Adult suffrage and institutions to protect the vote are highly valued; however, the limits on quick, strong, and effective action against those who breach rules create a climate of lack of accountability, which feeds lack of trust and public disengagement. We must speak truth to power as fair, neutral, and impartial entities.
We have investigated numerous complaints in and out of election periods over the years and have found that our investigations have cauterised and prevented escalation. While people are reluctant to come in when called by the Ombudsman, we can report over 85 per cent success rate through mediation, dialogue, and moral suasion.
The question for entities such as mine as political ombudsman is: “What can we do within our current mandate?”
I believe we can do three things.
1) Meet the people where they are and have greater engagement with the public in traditional and digital media regarding our mandates, commitment, and track record.
2) We can share with the public any gaps in our legislation requiring amendments, such as power being limited to making recommendations to political leaders and Parliament.
3) We can promote civic education and collaboration with local and international partners to promote democratic consciousness and knowledge of legal ways of penalising unethical conduct by public officials.
These measures would be the way forward to tackle the triple threat of crime, corruption, and COVID-19 in the 21st century. We all have to be bold, innovative, credible sources of knowledge and timely action.
Principles of rule of law can be built among citizens and among public officials and politicians to build back and renew the social contract on which democracy relies.
Our institutions must be above reproach and be driven by the key Ubuntu philosophy: “I am because you are,” which gives life to Jamaica's motto “Out of many one people”.
Entities like the Office of the Political Ombudsman represent the positive aspirations of citizens and politicians, but also attract some animus. This comes from those who benefit from what Dr Herbert Gayle of The University of the West Indies describes as “victory addiction”. This serves as a cloak and impetus for the breakdown of the rule of law, leading to loss of faith in democracy.
Let us remember that most of our institutions were created in the 20th century, so the majority of Jamaica's population today were children or not yet born when we were established. Many did not experience the challenges that led to our creation and perhaps are disengaged from those issues. We must reset now to be worthy of our assignments. Reset 2021 and beyond must be pursued with a people-centred approach.
Most candidates for political office are worthy of hire, but may get lost in systems and practices which thrive on loyalty to the team. We can promote dialogue and mediation to support change. In the words of Sir Patrick Allen,“There is nothing wrong with Jamaica that cannot be fixed by what is right with Jamaica.”
It's time for bold, positive action.
Donna Parchment Brown is the political ombudsman of Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com
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