Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Ombudsman all bark and no bite

Published:Friday | December 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Donna Parchment Brown, political ombudsman, and Governor General Sir Patrick Allen.

I have great sympathy for anyone in the post of political ombudsman. They have been given a job to do, with both hands tied behind their backs.

The politicians ask the political ombudsman to be referee of a political contest in which they have written the rules, making it difficult to catch anyone. And then even if anyone is found guilty of breaking the rules, no punishment for anyone is prescribed.

The political ombudsman is all bark and no bite. It is a job wherein one is almost guaranteed to fail. But that failure is by design.

In 2005, Jamaica's political parties executed a Joint Agreement and Declaration on Political Conduct which contained a Code of Political Conduct as Appendix 1. The six-page document is a list of political thou-shalt-nots and was signed by the presidents, chairmen and general secretaries of both the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The Joint Agreement states, "All breaches of the Code of Political Conduct will be investigated by the Political Ombudsman," but no penalties are prescribed for any breaches.

Suppose the political ombudsman were to have incontrovertible proof that the Code of Political Conduct has been breached, what then? Such breaches are not criminal offences, so no criminal charges can be laid. I guess the ombudsman could ask for an apology, or ask for remarks to be withdrawn, or actions to be reversed; but should the guilty party refuse, what then?

 

No teeth

 

The ombudsman is a completely toothless creation of politicians so that they can appear to have put something in place to address campaign impropriety. But in fact, it is an utterly useless (but highly paid) office!

I here do not impugn the character of any person who may hold this office; he or she neither wrote the act, nor drew up their job description. In fact, I have known the current political ombudsman for more than 30 years, and my wife and I are more than cordial friends with her and her family. However, she will not be able to carry water in the straw basket they have given her.

The Code of Political Conduct is like the Government's procurement guidelines. They are basically recommendations and breaching them is not illegal, and carries no sanctions. Ask Richard Azan. The director of public prosecutions (DPP) found nothing illegal in his actions in Spaldings, where he allowed the building of shops on land without the permission of the owners, and without following proper tendering procedures.

I might have said ask Shernet Haughton, the former mayor of Lucea, who presided over multiple contracts being awarded to several family members, about which the DPP made a similar ruling. But then, upon being challenged in the courts, the DPP has reversed her ruling. Might she reverse her ruling about Mr Azan also, if challenged?

The Code of Political Conduct does not specifically mention the erection of political flags in public spaces, although these have long been bones of contention and flashpoints of political violence, mayhem and murder. Article 3 of the code, titled, 'Avoidance of Confrontation', says:

"a) Nothing should be done or encouraged which can reasonably be expected to lead to volatile confrontation between opposing political factions.

b) Every effort must be made to avoid any act which is likely to be provocative or which will increase tension between opposing political factions."

I would interpret this and other articles of the code as banning the erection in public roadways of orange and green political flags, some bearing the images of party stalwarts. Aside from being tacky and untidy, they seem to shout and scream, "This is PNP country," or "This is JLP territory." And, of course, nothing could be further from the truth: Jamaica is a free country, not divided into political neighbourhoods. These political flags are intended to intimidate residents and passers-by; political intimidation is expressly banned by Article 1 of the code.

It is important to brand any violence that may result from the hanging of orange and green flags as political, so that the perpetrators may benefit from the exemption from the death penalty which the law provides. Politicians of both sides have passed a law to the effect that political murder cannot be capital murder. No matter what the Code of Political Conduct says, they protect their own.

Article 1 (f) of the code states: "Candidates or others acting on behalf of candidates (i) must not use funds derived from any source, public or private, to improperly influence electoral choices." I suppose this includes dropping a 'Shearer' here and there.

But should the political ombudsman receive evidence of this behaviour, what can she do? Are her hands tied?

I wish her well!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.