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Political ombudsman gets ammunition in push for more teeth


Buoyed by recommendations from a group which participated in a review of the September 2020 General Election campaign, Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown is preparing a legislative submission to take to the political directorate to give her office more teeth.

The Office of the Political Ombudsman (OPO) is a commission of Parliament established to conduct investigations in accordance with the provisions of the Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act, 2002. But the OPO has no power to sanction politicians deemed to have broken the rules.

Coming out of a review of the campaign leading to the September 3, 2020 general election, several legislative changes have been recommended for the OPO.

These include a recommendation that the OPO should be entrenched in the Jamaican Constitution and that more power needs to be granted to the political ombudsman (and possibly its youth arm) to hold politicians accountable for their actions on behalf of all Jamaicans.

It was also recommended that there be a strengthening of the OPO’s capacity to investigate matters of breaches of the Political Code of Conduct and complaints which it might receive.

A further recommendation is that the existing legislation should be strengthened, “to give the Political Ombudsman more autonomy and greater authority for reporting, investigation, enforcement, monitoring and prosecution so compliance could be improved, and the authority should include making recommendations to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution”.

Armed with these recommendations Parchment Brown yesterday told a briefing to launch the report, the first of its kind in Jamaica, that she will be making a push for constitutional protection for the OPO and for the Political Code of Conduct to be made legislation rather than an agreement by the politicians as it is now.

“Within the next 30 days we have to create a legislative brief for the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to take forward the recommendations,” said Parchment Brown.

“So we will make presentations of the report, and the subsequent pull out and also create a brief out of which a Cabinet submission could be developed for the legislative amendments to go to Parliament,” added Parchment Brown.

She noted that some of the recommendations in the report have been on the table for 10 years or more but now she intends to have the prime minister and the Opposition leader brought up to speed as she seeks their support.

Parchment Brown underscored that some of the recommendations in the report spoke to the OPO’s general engagement with the political parties and said she intends to reach out to the chairmen and general secretaries to see how the office can better engage with them.

The review of the 2020 General Election campaign found that there were a number of positive elements during the period but with room for improvements.

The report noted that there was less vitriol and violence during the campaign and there was effort by some candidates to obey the rules.

But the report also noted that the adverse conduct during the campaign period was overwhelming.

“There were clear violations of the Disaster Risk Management (Enforcement Measures)… In general the COVID-19 guidelines were breached,” said the report.

“A number of candidates were observed conducting meetings with large numbers of supporters, not practising social distancing and not wearing masks. There were also blatant breaches of the Code (Political Code of Conduct), with instances of funds being used to improperly influence electoral choices being noted as widespread and evident throughout the campaign period,” added the report.

The report also pointed out that during the campaign period and on election day, it was noted anecdotally, that electors were demanding a higher price for their vote because of the risk of COVID-19; the price for a vote reportedly doubled from the last general election that was held in 2016.

“In one constituency, persons were being offered $5,000 to vote but demanded more otherwise they would not leave their houses to vote. Beyond this example, there are numerous examples where it is alleged that money was given to citizens to influence their vote for a particular person or party, such as money being wrapped in t-shirts and handed out to voters,” the report said.

Other selected OPO 2020 General Election Campaign Review Recommendations

 

1. Each candidate must produce a manifesto for the constituency that they represent, with reports of stewardship.

 

2. Candidates should communicate with the police first if there are incidents t0hat seem to be politically motivated before contacting the media.

 

3. The political parties should include the Political Ombudsman in their campaign meetings prior to elections, to help educate Members of Parliament and officials to improve compliance with political and democratic standards in Jamaica.

 

4. Election dates should be fixed.

 

5. The power to observe and apply sanctions for breaches of the laws that touch and concern the conduct of politicians should be granted to the Political Ombudsman.

 

6. A protocol must be in place to deal with potentially inflammatory incidents during election periods and allow for ease of engagement between the police, the political parties, the media and the Political Ombudsman.

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