Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Whither the political ombudsman?

Published:Thursday | October 2, 2014 | 10:00 AM

After a year without a political ombudsman and with local government elections on the horizon, the minister with responsibility for electoral matters, Phillip Paulwell, said the appointment of a new political ombudsman will be made by the end of the year. He disclosed that Cabinet rejected a motion from South West St Catherine Member of Parliament Everald Warmington for the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) to perform the role of the ombudsman.

However, though Warmington's idea might not be the best, it seems that there should be a working relationship between the ECJ and the office of the political ombudsman. Perhaps the political ombudsman could be given observer status on the Electoral Commission.

The mission of the ECJ is to conduct national elections that are fair, free and free from fear to all contestants, ensuring that the objective of one person one vote is met. All citizens who meet the qualifications established by law have the right to vote. There are other functions, such as the ballot must be secret and there can be no voting by proxy.

On the other hand, the ombudsman is authorised to carry out investigations relating to issues which could be in breach of any agreement, code or arrangement between or among political parties in Jamaica. This person must be proactive in perceiving anything likely to prejudice good relations between the supporters of various political parties. The ombudsman would also need persons to forward complaints for investigation.

Therefore, based on the mission statement of the ECJ and the role of the political ombudsman, there needs to be some formal collaboration. In addition, the office of the political ombudsman could mimic the structure of the ECJ in having a committee on which political representatives sit, and also members of civil society. This group would update the political code, establish code of ethics for campaign advertisements, etc.

Bishop Herro Blair, the third political ombudsman, after Justice James Kerr and Resident Magistrate E.G. Green, made recommendations in his annual report to Parliament recommending more bite for the office. We need to know what became of those recommendations.

There needs to be greater involvement of civil society in facilitating the role of the political ombudsman. Therefore, electoral watchdog groups such as CAFFE can help.

Additionally, every parish has Ministers Fraternal and they can help monitor the political code of conduct. I recall during the 1989, the Hanover Ministers Fraternal was involved in managing the signing of the political code by the politicians. However, it did not stop there as we were charged to attend political rallies to ensure that the code was adhered to. I attended a rally in Hopewell, Hanover, and a parish councilor made inappropriate comments on the platform. I wrote to the general secretary of the political party who, after his investigation, said those comments did not represent the party. Looking back, a report should have been made to the political ombudsman for action. However, this shows that the political ombudsman will need an islandwide network and support from the ECJ to make elections free and fair and free from fear.

The office of the political ombudsman should be seen like a referee being able to dispense justice quickly, otherwise, by the time the investigation is over, the elections have long gone. The office should be able to issue monetary fined for infractions. Therefore, each party should put in escrow $6.3m and each candidate can be fine a maximum of $100,000. If there are no infractions during the campaign and elections, then the money is returned to the party.

Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.