The Government on Tuesday used its majority in the House of Representatives to pass controversial legislation that will see the functions of the Office of Political Ombudsman (OPO) subsumed in the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), ahead of the local government election scheduled for February 26.
In a divide vote, 21 government members voted ‘yes’ to ensure that the Political Ombudsman (Amendment) Act, 2024, piloted by Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, was approved. Seven Opposition members voted ‘no’.
The Government pushed through the Bill despite strong objections from the Opposition, and a warning a week earlier by former Government Minister Karl Samuda for the Holness-led administration not to tinker with the ECJ.
“It is disgraceful,” declared a vociferous Opposition Leader Mark Golding, who added that it was “a bad idea” that won’t find favour with Jamaicans.
He appeared peeved that the broad consultation that was suggested by Samuda last week did not materialise. Golding told the House that the Opposition anticipated that there would have been collaborative discussions over the past week, but none took place.
“All that has happened is that they’ve come back now to ram this Bill through today (Tuesday), despite the concerns of us (Opposition) and the wider society on the matter,” Golding remarked.
The Opposition leader also described the move as “bad policy and bad law” and reiterated that he was against the decision to have the nine ECJ commissioners decide on potentially controversial political matters.
But, in a statement ahead of the vote, Chuck argued that the ECJ has long established internal protocols for treating with matters that will be adopted and applied to those they will now assume.
“We are not seeking to reinvent the wheel, but to adopt what has shown to work. Much of what the Opposition has said regarding the very strength of the ECJ forms the basis upon which the ECJ is believed to be the most appropriate entity to undertake the work of the political ombudsman,” the justice minister stated.
Said Chuck: “The level of stature achieved by the ECJ locally, regionally and internationally is necessary for the functions of the Office of the Political Ombudsman to be fairly and effectively carried out. Investing these responsibilities in a nine-member commission will result in more impactful recommendations made to political parties or its representatives in circumstances where there has been breaches.
“It is in the nation’s interest to extend the reach of the well-functioning ECJ to close any gaps that may exist in the oversight of the political process and political conduct,” he said.
The Office of Political Ombudsman has been vacant since November 2022, when the seven-year term of the then-incumbent Donna Parchment Brown expired.
Politicians on both sides of the divide have, over the years, argued that rulings of the political ombudsman are not enforceable and are often ignored by political representatives.
They have also argued that the office only functions during an election cycle, which is usually every four to five years.