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Editorial | Speak, Mrs Parchment-Brown

Published:Friday | September 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

In essence, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has told Donna Parchment-Brown, the political ombudsman, to butt out. For, on government contracts, of their award and execution, she has no jurisdiction. These are matters for the National Contracts Commission and the contractor general.

That, de jure, may be the fact. For the Political Ombudsman Act, at Section 12, speaks to the office's investigation of political parties and their members and supporters over breaches of any agreement, arrangement or code of behaviour that may be in force between them.

The J$626-million contract for road repairs and other infrastructural work in the parish of St Mary wasn't awarded by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which Mr Holness leads. It is a creature of the Government of Jamaica.

Yet, as Mrs Parchment-Brown said in her riposte, with the full, though unsolicited, endorsement of this newspaper, Mr Holness, "and anyone else in that position (of prime minister), is answerable to the people of Jamaica". This observation, hopefully, represents a broader interpretation of her mandate by Mrs Parchment-Brown in response to evolving circumstances.

Actions by political parties and their supporters that disturb the peace, which was the fundamental premise of the political ombudsman law, are still of concern in Jamaica. Increasingly, though, it is more subtle things, like the skewed and partisan allocation of state resources by governments in the pursuance of patronage, or the unregulated contributions of money to political parties by special interests to purchase influence, that has gained ascendancy.


Parchment-Brown concerns


This is part of the context within which Mrs Parchment-Brown sent up the flares about the imminent infrastructure work in St Mary, where a by-election is to be held shortly for the South East Mary riding, whose MP, Winston Green, died recently. Victory in this constituency would be especially significant for Mr Holness' party, whose majority in Parliament, though now at four seats, will be whittled away when South St Andrew and South West St Andrew, two People's National Party strongholds, reaffirm their political affiliation in by-elections.

Another frame within which Mrs Parchment-Brown sets her concern is those contracts 10 months ago, on the eve of the municipal elections, when verges were trimmed, gullies cleaned, trees pruned and roads patched to the tune of J$600 million. The Cabinet, over which Mr Holness presides, rather than the National Works Agency (NWA), the body that is supposedly responsible for such matters, decided who were awarded contracts to perform these jobs.

An investigation by Contractor General Dirk Harrison not only underlined his unease with the Cabinet directly deciding who got contracts, but pointed to the inappropriate involvement of at least four ministers in "advising" contractors who should be facilitators in communities. Mr Harrison warned of the danger of corruption in this kind of arrangement.

"We want to be sure that the concerns raised by the contractor general (in his report on the election eve contracts) do not work themselves into this project," Mrs Parchment-Brown remarked recently.

Mr Holness, despite a promise to do so, has, unfortunately, failed to provide a formal response to Mr Harrison's findings. He, nonetheless, insists that there is no need for concern about the St Mary roadworks. Its timing, as the Government said of the election eve contracts, is merely coincidental. He may well be right.

Mr Harrison is known to have this agreement within his sights, as we believe to be the case with most major contracts. But given the nature of that office and how it works, and the requirements of the law that governs it, Mr Harrison's findings will come well after the fact.

The political ombudsman is not similarly constrained. Mrs Parchment-Brown, can observe and report real time, including on whether her observations support the PM's. Her voice should be heard.