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Leave the Ombudsman alone - Civil society urges Parliament to retain political watchdog

Published:Sunday | September 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Political Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair.

Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter

WITH THE full backing of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and two influential civil society groups, the Professor Trevor Munroe-led National Integrity Action (NIA) has made a strong case for the strengthening of the Office of the Political Ombudsman.

This comes in direct contrast to a private member's motion, which had been under review by a special select committee of parliament seeking to declare the Political Ombudsman redundant.

The Parliamentary Committee is enquiring into the relevance of the Political Ombudsman to the existing political structure and questioning whether the $18.62 million spent by the office each year is justified.

In a seven-page presentation to the Human Resources and Social Development Committee of Parliament last Thursday, Munroe dismissed the motion which was moved by South West St Catherine Member of Parliament Everald Warmington.

Extreme forms

Examining the Political Code of Conduct which was signed by former prime ministers P.J. Patterson and Edward Seaga in Gordon House, in 2005, Munroe argued that most "extreme forms of non-compliance" reflected in the use of armed violence had diminished.

However, he contended that the retention of the political ombudsman, whose statutorily grounded function required the policing of the code, was critical, as an honest review of it would reveal continued breaches and non-compliance.

According to Munroe, the country still has a far way to go, before "the parties eschew the practice of political tribalism" as required by the Political Code of Conduct.

He also cited another section of the agreement where, he said, the political parties are not even close to achieving compliance.

Munroe quoted from a section of the code which stated: "Officials who by virtue of their positions have control or influence over the appropriation of public funds or other public resources, should not discriminate against any individual, group or community on the basis of political allegiance or support."

The motion, which is being examined by the Human Resources and Social Development Committee, had also indicated that the original mandate of the political ombudsman was met, but the NIA executive director reasoned that the work of the office transcended elections and election campaigns.

Munroe suggested that complaints or allegations of violations would "clearly continue to require investigation" and, therefore, the body charged by law to carry out that task was the Office of the Political Ombudsman.

During the committee deliberations members questioned whether the country was receiving value for money in a case where $18.62 million was being spent each year, yet the political ombudsman only becomes very active during an election period which could be called, in the case of Local Government, every three years, while for national elections, a maximum of five years.

But Munroe told the Parliamentary Committee that Patterson and Seaga, to their credit, had committed in 2005 to go beyond the terms of the Joint Agreement and Declaration on Political Conduct.

He said the leaders had pledged to work together on additional measures such as the vexed issue of the distribution of scare benefits.

By 2011, the Bruce Golding-led Jamaica Labour Party had advanced two additional measures. They are the strengthening of the Political Code of Conduct and to establish the Office of the Political Ombudsman in the Constitution of Jamaica.

Political Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair submitted in his annual report of 2008 specific recommendations designed to replace the ineffective 'bark' of his office with effective teeth to bite.

He wants the Political Code of Conduct to be extended beyond a gentleman's agreement to one in which sanctions are applicable to those found in breach of it.

Fine on candidates

Among the changes proposed by the political ombudsman are the imposition of a fine on candidates and the party they represent for breaches of the code; refer offenders of the code to the director of public prosecutions and recommend to Parliament the removal of parliamentarians he has fou,nd to be unfit for office.

For these recommendations to become a reality, Section 22 of the Act which established the political ombudsman would have to be amended in order to specify breaches of the code as offences and to attach to such offences appropriate severe penalties.

Munroe said the previous administration, in its monthly update to the Council of the Partnership for Transformation, had reported on a Cabinet submission seeking approval to issue drafting instructions to legislate offences and penalties for breaches to the Code of Political Conduct.

"This document merits full reproduction as it proposes measures going in the very opposite direction from that proposed by the resolution before the Sessional Select Committee" the NIA executive director asserted.

"There appears to have been consensus between the two parliamentary parties, the private sector and civil society that the Office of the Political Ombudsman not only was not redundant, not only continued to be relevant, but needed to be strengthened," argued Munroe.

Expand the march

In the meantime, during a brief presentation to the committee, Chairperson for the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition, Carol Narcisse, invited the committee and by extension, the Government to expand the march towards a model political electoral system in the world.

Narcisse noted that as a teenager she never thought she would live to see a Jamaica where ballot stealing was not the norm, "in which violence, resulting in the freshest memory that I had was 800 Jamaicans dying and that we thought was the worst thing that could happen, and then we live to see even more occurring every year."

"We fashioned for ourselves as a people a transformative vision and then having created that vision we worked to establish the institution, and we gave that institution our commitment of time and money, and together we created an electoral process that other people around the world come to study and to ask our directors of election to come to their countries and support them."

She challenged members of the committee to say whether they agree with the larger goal and vision of continuing the process of transforming Jamaica's political culture or not.

"If we agree that that is the purpose, then we would agree that $18 million a year is worth the price in order to get to the destination that we are trying to get to," she said, in relation to the annual sum allocated to the Office of the Political Ombudsman.

"If, in my lifetime, we have come as far as we have, then in your children's lifetime they can see a possibility of us ending it," she opined.