Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Bruce Golding | Overreach by political ombudsman

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Bruce Golding
Donna Parchment-Brown, the political ombudsman.
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The character and impact of a public office is often shaped by the holder of that office. Greg Christie, in his time as contractor general, is a notable example. In doing so, however, he or she must be mindful of the scope and limits of his or her authority.

The Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act empowers the holder of that office to "investigate any action taken by a political party, its members or 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".

The current political ombudsman has shown a disinclination to distinguish between the constitutionally elected government and the political party from which it is formed. While that distinction is often blurred, it is important for the proper functioning of our constitutional and legal institutions that it be maintained and recognised. The political ombudsman has no authority to investigate or interfere in any action taken by the Government.

Last year, the political ombudsman engaged herself in the matter of the allocation of funds from the Tourism Enhancement Fund among various constituencies. She later waded into the issue of alleged payments to the People's National Party while in government by persons in receipt of government contracts. She has now injected her office in the matter of the announced repair/upgrading of the Junction road. In all these instances, she has sought to elasticise her statutory mandate and authority.

 

FREE TO TALK, BUT ...

 

The political ombudsman is, like any of us, free to publicly comment and/or opine on any matter, including the ongoing conflict between the US and North Korea, but Prime Minister Holness is absolutely correct that she has no authority to intervene in or investigate matters pertaining to the Government's exercise of its executive functions. As he pointed out, government contracts are subject to scrutiny and investigation by the contractor general, who is vested with the requisite statutory powers, including the power of subpoena, to carry out those functions.

The execution of government projects also falls within the remit of Parliament through its relevant committees, as well as the auditor general, but it does not come within the ambit of the political ombudsman as defined in law.

It is, indeed, possible for the execution of a government contract to give rise to "action taken by a political party, its members or supporters" that violates the Code of Political Conduct or prejudices good relations between political party supporters, but unless and until that occurs, the political ombudsman is exceeding her boundaries in engaging herself or her office.

- Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.