Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Editorial |What’s expected of the political ombudsman?

Published:Thursday | January 21, 2021 | 12:12 AM
Donna Parchment Brown
Donna Parchment Brown

DONNA PARCHMENT Brown’s proposal that her mandate be widened, allowing for criminal referrals to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) for election offences, such as those relating to campaign financing, makes sense on the face of it.

For, given the toothlessness of the legislation the political ombudsman oversees, Mrs Parchment Brown, like her predecessors, is really a paper tiger. After her growls, she has little but moral cessation with which to enforce compliance with her orders.

But the ombudsman’s suggestion, in her report for 2018, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, and in subsequent remarks to this newspaper, raises two fundamental issues that deserve attention. One (assuming that Mrs Parchment Brown is right that a lacuna exits between allegations of vote-buying and under-reporting of campaign donations, and the prosecution of such cases) has to do with the responsibilities of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) with respect to these matters and whether it is falling down on the job.

More critically, though, is the need for another hard look at, and frank debate about, the relevance of the Office of the Political Ombudsman, and if we think it continues to be relevant, what ought to be its role going forward. In other words, we want a combination of what should have happened eight years ago at the first stab at a review of the political ombudsman law, and a process we urged Mrs Parchment Brown to lead when she became political ombudsman in 2015.

Arbiter of Good Behaviour

The office of ombudsman is a commission, established in the 1980s when political party rivalry was still extreme and elections likely to be violent. The ombudsman was to be a sort of arbiter of good behaviour between the parties, which agreed to adhere to voluntary codes of conduct, especially during campaign season.

Indeed, the law authorises the ombudsman to investigate actions by political parties and their adherents that would either violate these codes or was “likely to prejudice good relations between the supporters of various political parties”. The latter phrasing gives the political ombudsman a relatively wide legal realm within which to roam, as the office holders sometimes do.

Yet, having initiated an investigation on her own volition, or conducted a probe consequent to a complaint, the ombudsman has no power to impose sanctions on a person against whom she makes an adverse finding. She sends her findings to the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition, who, invariably, are the leaders of their parties, and/or to other designated persons within the political organisations.

These reports gather dust. After all, it is hard for political leaders, except maybe in the most egregious circumstances, to sanction their officials and members.

Then there is this twist. Increasingly, the matters that come before the political ombudsman are not the hardcore violence of the old days. Littering with political paraphernalia is now a big issue, as is the disputatious brawls between the rival political lots on social media.

The really big questions, like the partisan corralling of state resources to support campaigns, are matters that fall within the purview of the Integrity Commission. And vote-buying, which has exercised Mrs Parchment Brown, is a specific offence under the Representation of the People Act, which ought to be investigated and prosecuted by the police, with the support of the DPP.

Maybe the ombudsman is right that her office should have a hand in this. But then the oversight and conduct of elections is also the specific responsibility of the ECJ, to which political parties are supposed to, by law, account for donations. Donors, too, are to tell the ECJ what they give, once it reaches the benchmarked sum.

Mrs Parchment Brown implies that accounting for these is not robust enough. “It’s OK to give the money (to parties),” she told this newspaper. “But a failure to submit a report could lead to a fine of J$1 million ... who is making that happen?” Maybe the ECJ should tell us. They might also help with information about vote-buying cases investigated by the police, prima facie evidence of which Mrs Parchment Brown would, at times, likely refer to the DPP. She now has no such mandate, except if she exercised one, at common law, as a private citizen.

These matters should be on the agenda for debate, including, as we noted at the start of Mrs Parchment Brown’s tenure, whether the office of the political ombudsman should take over some of the expanded functions on which the public expects the ECJ to lead. Or, maybe if it continues to exist, the office of the political ombudsman should head into radical new directions. The bottom line is that it is all worthy of serious discussion.