A call has been made for the Office of the Political Ombudsman (OPO) to hold orientation classes and refresher courses for individuals preparing to run for political seats to mitigate some of the utterances made on the platform.
Orette Fisher, former director of elections, made the call during a recent Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s North Street offices in Kingston, while making the point that improper and uncomplimentary utterances from the political podium provided enough evidence that schooling was necessary.
Fisher said he believed it was imperative that newcomers be taught lessons in proper political behaviour, and especially about the provisions of the Representation of the People’s Act and the Political Code of Conduct.
“I think there should be a system where when new caretakers are appointed, that they are required, or be mandated, to meet with the political ombudsman. You don’t wait until they are in the heat of battle, but from they are appointed, and they are instructed on the Political Code of Conduct,” Fisher said.
He was disagreeing with University of the West Indies’ senior lecturer Dr Christopher Charles, a forum panellist, who is of the view that the OPO, by instituting an investigation, was trespassing on the right to free speech by politicians, even if it was untrue but not libellous, defamatory or inciting of violence.
Charles was making reference to a recent utterance by Manchester North West Member of Parliament Mikael Phillips during a constituency conference in August.
Phillips, who had made a divisive remark about supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party, suggesting that none of that party’s members should feel comfortable in the constituency, later apologised for the comments after a public backlash.
Fisher, too, believed an investigation was not the jurisdiction of the OPO, but said it was important that political ‘lessons’ are taught.
“Candidates and caretakers are subject to change from time to time. So this is something that should be considered,” Fisher said.
He was supported by University of the West Indies student youth leader David Salmon, who was also a panellist.
Salmon said it was important that such classes are held, especially for politicians active on social media.
“We must make the demarcation between freedom of speech and responsible speech … . We have to see that, as people who agree that elections should be conducted in a responsible way, then you need to set a standard for the way people express themselves,” argued Salmon.
“I do believe that for persons interested in public office, there should be sessions done by the Political Ombudsman’s office, in terms of what is and what is not acceptable (speech). They need to know that they don’t need to use certain language to express themselves, because there are young people who are interested in the process, and are mindful of what is said,” Salmon told the forum.
He did not believe the (investigation) by the political ombudsman was an encroachment on freedom of speech.
“Responsible speech has to be the priority,” he stated.
Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment-Brown said her office looks to the leaders of the political parties to set the tone for political best practices.
“They are expected to be the primary purveyors, promoters, and activists in support of good governance, the rule of law and a clean democracy in Jamaica. I look to the prime minister and leader of the opposition to speak positively of the institution, to actively encourage their members to understand the rules and to make their members available when we request them for classes, for meetings, for fora, so that they may strengthen their internal democracies,” urged Parchment-Brown.
Her office was available to provide the information, she said.
Meanwhile, she defended her office’s decision to ‘investigate Phillips’ comment, which she said was in keeping with code eight of the Political Code of Conduct.
While being of the view that the office was not intended to deal with internal politics, she said it “might” be covered as members of parliament and councillors and caretakers are bound by the code. The office is in contact with the leadership of the PNP and concerns have been raised regarding Phillips’ comments.