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EDITORIAL - Don't be too quick to chuck ombudsman

Published:Tuesday | June 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM

We are surprised that neither civil-society groups nor politicians responded to published invitations by a parliamentary committee for submissions on the future of the Office of the Political Ombudsman.

That, hopefully, will not be the end of the matter, which is why we agree with the suggestion by some members of the Human Resources and Social Development Committee that invitations be sent to specific groups.

Its chairman, Ruddy Spencer, must follow through, for we feel that any conclusion to dispense with the office, if that is the recommendation, should be on the basis of serious thought after robust analysis and full debate.

Currently held by Bishop Herro Blair, the political ombudsman's job has evolved since it was established in the 1980s and initially held by the late Mr Justice James Kerr. But it has maintained a central role: the ombudsman policing the conduct of individual politicians and parties, especially during election campaigns.

MORAL SWAY

The real power of the office is the moral authority the holder brings to the post and, therefore, the societal impact that he or she has upon pronouncing on an issue.

Most of the rest of what the office can achieve is subsumed in the law-enforcement/legal process. Criminal conduct is, ultimately, investigated by the police, and prosecution, if warranted, is done by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It is perhaps useful to remind ourselves of the context within which the political ombudsman's office was established. It was an outgrowth of the sharp ideological divide and political violence, including a near civil war leading up to the 1980 poll that characterised Jamaica's politics of the time. Even when the violence subsided, a chasm of distrust remained.

An honest broker was, therefore, useful. The political ombudsman would hear complaints and allegations of misconduct of politicians on the hustings and/or whether the broad conduct of the parties and/or their candidates was in keeping with a code of conduct to which they subscribed. Additionally, the ombudsman could, on his own, intervene to head off potential problems.

Justice Kerr and Bishop Blair have managed the job with credit. But there are some who, on the evidence of recent years, believe that the office has run its course. Hence, the private member's motion that is the basis of the committee's deliberations.

SOME PROGRESS, BUT ...

First, while this newspaper acknowledges the progress and appreciates that some of what is done by the political ombudsman could well be incorporated into the responsibilities of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, any claim that our political culture is fully repaired and pristine is premature. A few violent incidents in the last campaign make the point.

With many of the structures that support a violent political culture still in place, a lapse in vigilance could lead to a return to the bad habits of a time when, as Mr Spencer framed it, the ombudsman was the "only one who could make peace".

Or, perhaps it is that we need to reinterpret the role of the ombudsman. His office, for instance, might conduct an investigation on behalf of the ECJ regarding adherence to proposed party- and election-financing regulations and/or fit-and-proper criteria for donors, or for political participation.

The issues should be fully ventilated. There should be no precipitate action of dumping the political ombudsman.

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