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Editorial: Towards a new kind of Ombudsman

Published:Wednesday | November 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Rosetta Parchment (right) plants a kiss on the cheek of her daughter, Donna Parchment-Brown, following her swearing-in as political ombudsman at King's House in St Andrew this week.

By training and obvious temperament, Donna Parchment Brown seems a good choice for the job of political ombudsman. Not only is she a lawyer, but in Jamaica, she has been a leading advocate for less adversarial approaches to dispute resolution and for restorative justice. She has by and large made a career of it.

These are good skills to have, given Jamaica's potentially volatile political environment. Yet, even as we recognise these capacities and Mrs Parchment Brown's calm, assuaging demeanour and the value thereof, we are sure that she recognises the limitations of those traits in this job and that she will adjust accordingly.

Further, for Mrs Parchment Brown to be considered more than a dribbling success in the office, we would expect her to accomplish more than pronouncing on infractions between the parties, but bring new transformative thinking to the role of the political ombudsman if the office is to continue to be relevant in a changing environment. Indeed, such robust thinking might even cause her to conclude that the post is no longer needed, which makes the history of the job relevant.

While Jamaica has been able, for more than 70 years, to maintain its liberal democratic traditions, there have been times when the institutions of democracy were severely stressed and violence emerged as a critical toll of political persuasion. Indeed, of the more than 800 homicides in Jamaica in 1980, a large portion of them was linked to the election campaign of that year.

It is not coincidental that even now the first item on the Code of Political Conduct between the parties, policing, which is part of Mrs Parchment Brown's job, has to do with the prevention of violence and intimidation of voters, including an undertaking by the parties and their candidates against the "procurement or distribution of weapons or ammunition of any sort for use in political activities".

While violence, especially that specifically associated with the parties, has receded in Jamaica's politics, it has not been completely eliminated. Neither have the rhetorical excesses that might be considered incitement. In the past, the political ombudsman has largely reacted to complaints about these matters.

Mrs Parchment Brown should not. She should be on the offensive, identifying and attempting to douse potential sources of conflict. And she should do so in an open, transparent manner, rather than via the closed-door diplomacy, which we suspect of dispute resolution specialists. Calling out misbehaviours is one way to quickly command public respect and support, stamp her authority on the office, and set a tone for her ombudsmanship.

Of course, well-behaved parties and politicians could make the beat policing aspect of her job boringly easy. That would be good for the society, speaking to a deepening maturity of Jamaica's democracy and political engagement. But there has been the evolution of the institutions that has contributed to this growth and what ought to be the political ombudsman's role going forward.

The most significant of these is the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, which, with recent and planned legislative changes, will have greater powers of governance and oversight of political parties. The trend suggests that some of these functions could very well overlap with, or subsume, the intended role of the political ombudsman. It is a discussion in which Mrs Parchment Brown should be engaged, and preferably lead.