Wed | Jun 16, 2021

Editorial | Why Mrs Parchment Brown shouldn’t rush

Published:Thursday | June 10, 2021 | 12:07 AM

DONNA PARCHMENT BROWN, the political ombudsman, should stay her haste in asking Parliament for additional powers against politicians who break election laws or breach the codes by which they agree to abide during campaigns. Last week, Mrs Parchment Brown announced that she intended to, within 30 days, present legislative briefs to Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the Opposition leader, Mark Golding.

It is not that we believe that the ombudsman’s position is without merit. Indeed, this newspaper has many times called for the deepening and widening of her authority. However, as we have argued more recently, her office, restructured and renamed (Parliamentary Conduct Commissioner), should be central in the proposed law for the impeachment of legislators, a bill for which has been retabled by Mr Golding.

Indeed, the matters in that bill, but incorporating the issues this newspaper has placed on the table, as well as the concerns of the political ombudsman, should be aggressively canvassed by Mrs Parchment Brown for her remodelled agency.

The office of the political ombudsman is a commission of Parliament. It polices a standing code of behaviour agreed to by the island’s political parties and to which they, and their candidates, formally recommit during election campaigns. The office is also empowered to investigate actions by parties, their members and supporters that are “likely to prejudice good relations” between the various groups.

However, after her investigations, Mrs Parchment Brown cannot impose penalties if she determines a person or a party guilty. The political ombudsman can recommend a course of action to the offending politician, report her findings and recommendations to the political parties and, ultimately, file a report with Parliament. Fundamentally, though, the ombudsman’s only real weapons are moral suasion and public outrage – if the latter can be engendered during the heat of a political campaign. Usually, it’s not.

Criminal charges

In her 2018 report, tabled in Parliament in January, Mrs Parchment Brown suggested that she be given specific powers to refer to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) for criminal charges, breaches of the electoral laws, such as failing to report campaign donations, or improperly adhering to election spending regulations. These matters are covered by the Representation of the People Act and, on the face of it, fall to the Election Commission of Jamaica for direct oversight.

The political ombudsman has now bolstered her request with data from a forum held to review the conduct of last September’s general election, which showed that 88 per cent of the participants supported the extension of the office’s mandate to refer election law breaches to the DPP. Eighty per cent felt the ombudsman should also have the power to impose predetermined fines for breaches of the political code of conduct.

While we supported Mrs Parchment Brown’s January proposals, we argued then that the changes should be in the context of a broad review of the role of the political ombudsman, whose advent, over three decades, was at a time when Jamaican elections were heavily infused with violence and intimidation. Although violence still sometimes occurs in campaigns, the context and depth of political tensions has changed substantially since the deep-seated ideological contests of the 1970s and 1980s.

That was part of the backdrop against which we suggested the incorporation of the office of the political ombudsman into the parliamentary impeachment bill, which was reprised by Mr Golding in the midst of the allegations that George Wright, member of parliament, is the man seen in a viral video beating a woman.

Egregious conduct

A version of the bill came to Parliament a dozen years ago, but did not move forward. In addition to general corruption and a serious failure to perform their duties, the new version proposed law that would make it possible to impeach legislators who engage in “egregious conduct or other misbehaviour unbefitting of the holder of the office of senator or member of parliament, which is so serious in nature as to render the holder of the office unfit to hold that office; or bring the office held by the person into disrepute”. Domestic abuse and other forms of violence could be captured under this clause.

As currently proposed, the law would allow a slew of public officials or agencies, or three MPs backed by a petition signed by at least 1,000 people, to make complaints against legislators to a parliamentary impeachment committee. If that committee concluded that an impeachable offence had occurred, it would then forward the case to an impeachment tribunal for trial.

This newspaper, however, believes that a restructured office of the political ombudsman, or the Parliamentary Conduct Commissioner, would provide better independent initial investigation of complaints against legislators, before the findings are turned over to Parliament for further action. Additionally, the Parliamentary Conduct Commissioner would hear and filter complaints against MPs and senators from private individuals, who might otherwise be intimated from voicing concerns.