THE electoral watchdog group Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) has joined the growing list of entities expressing concern over the Government's decision to shutter the Office of the Political Ombudsman.
The office was established by legislation some two decades ago as an independent commission of Parliament with a mandate to monitor adherence to the code of conduct agreed to by Jamaica's registered political parties.
But in November 2022 Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck told the Jamaica Observer that the office would be closed when the term of its last head, Donna Parchment Brown, ended.
"The functions of the political ombudsman will be, going forward, subsumed under the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ)," Chuck told the Observer at the time.
The Government was expected to save $30 million annually with closure of the political ombudsman's office, but Chuck argued that this was not the main reason behind the decision.
"From as far back as 2012, Parliament passed a resolution to say that a political ombudsman's functions would be better supervised and managed by the Electoral Commission where you have independent members [as well as] representatives of both political parties to consider the complaints that come in at any time, but especially at election time," Chuck argued then.
At that time, Chuck had promised that legislation to subsume the work of the political ombudsman into the ECJ would be completed in the first quarter of this year.
But, speaking at a post-Cabinet media briefing in July, Chuck said the transition had been stalled for several months because of bureaucracy.
"I'm a little disappointed that my commitment to have the political ombudsman subsumed into the electoral commission has not been done," said Chuck.
"For the last two or three months it has been doing musical chairs, but I'm hoping that it will be done in due course," added Chuck as he promised that the legislation would be in place "shortly".
That promise has provided little comfort to CAFFE which, on Thursday, joined Jamaicans For Justice, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, National Integrity Action, and others, in expressing concern about the absence of a political referee such as the ombudsman.
According to CAFFE, it is concerned 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.
"CAFFE considers that the Office of 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," said the group in a release.
"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.
"At the height of the political campaigns they should not be asked to bear the responsibility to pronounce on the appropriateness of the statements and actions of their colleagues and supporters. Furthermore, at the height of the campaign, when the administrative pressures on the electoral system are at the highest, the ECJ should not be embroiled in the adjudication, mediation, and formulation of directives in respect of ethical issues relating to or arising from the conduct of political candidates and their supporters," said CAFFE.
Jamaicans are expected to return to the polls by February next year for local government elections with the general election constitutionally due by 2025.
But already both major political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP), have signalled that they are in campaign mode with occasional statements that would have attracted the interest of a political ombudsman.
In March this year, supporters of both parties were embroiled in a major war of words on social media over Finance Minister Nigel Clarke's labelling of Opposition Leader Mark Golding as "Massa Mark" during the closing of the 2023/24 Budget Debate.
The embers of the fire were sparked in the House of Representatives minutes after Clarke referred to Golding's labelling of JLP supporters as "damn fool" at a PNP function and charged that "never sound like Markie G, it sound like Massa Mark".
Angered by that comment, PNP chairman and Member of Parliament for St Andrew South Western Angela Brown Burke rose on a point of order which quickly degenerated into a walkout of the House by the Opposition members.
The controversy worsened as the PNP issued a media release in which it said that it was outraged and repulsed by the racial inference used by Clarke to characterise Golding.
Clarke refused to apologise.
Two months later, PNP General Secretary Dr Dayton Campbell called for Prime Minister Andrew Holness to rein in what he described as the disgraceful behaviour of Minister without portfolio with responsibility for works Everald Warmington.
Addressing a PNP meeting in Manchester, Dr Campbell chided Warmington for his verbal attack on a PNP caretaker during a tour of Portland Eastern. Warmington was seen angrily berating councillor candidate for the Fellowship Division, Colin Bell, telling Bell that he would not be conducting a tour with councillor-caretakers, regardless of their party affiliation.
In July, Golding withdrew a comment he had made which was interpreted to encourage the casting of ballots in the names of dead voters during the PNP's St Andrew East Rural constituency meeting.
Golding, who had faced backlash from a wide cross section of society, including the JLP, said his comment was taken out of context and was meant to be humorous.