The President’s speech

President Aquino came out swinging at his political opponents and critics Wednesday night in a special televised address to the nation. But, reading the transcript of the President’s speech more closely, I got the sense that it was a defensive response to Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s own privilege speech at the Senate last Sept. 25. The President might have thought that Estrada and the other accused lawmakers in the pork barrel scam had managed to confuse the public and divert media attention from the main issues.

Hence, the refrain recurring throughout the President’s speech: The real issue here is theft of public funds. It is they who are charged with stealing, not us. It is they who must explain themselves to the public, not we. We did not steal, and we will not steal.

Though somewhat late, the President hoped that his intervention could shape the public debate on the pork barrel. Only time will tell if the public got his message. The occasion the President chose—a special address to the nation just before it went on a long break—lent the event an air of urgency that, as it turned out, the content of the speech itself did not warrant. Under the circumstances, the public expected to hear more, and it didn’t. One can’t help wondering if this is a sensible way of spending precious political capital.

At various points in his speech, the President sounded as if he were making a blanket defense of everyone in his administration or his political party. He seemed to be justifying the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) in its entirety, and offering a wholesale rationalization of all lump-sum funds under the control of the Office of the President. This way of talking might serve the ends of rhetoric, but it hardly serves to clarify issues. Indeed, the President’s speech glossed over many important questions that have been begging for answers in the last three months.

On the PDAF scam. No one has accused P-Noy himself of stealing or being dishonest.  But, from the time the Department of Justice filed the first cases against opposition lawmakers, people have asked who would be next. Will the chips be allowed to fall where they may? Will any of the President’s senior political allies, Cabinet members and undersecretaries, and heads of key government agencies ever be charged in connection with this scam? When can we expect a full report from the Commission on Audit and the Department of Budget and Management on how it was possible for so much public money from the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) and the Malampaya Fund to be stolen without detection for over a decade? COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan herself admitted at a Senate hearing: “There was a breakdown in the control system.” What has been done to restore the integrity of the system? Are the implicated officials in these agencies being investigated? Finally, does the President really believe there’s nothing wrong with using the PDAF as a tool of political patronage?

On the DAP. No one questions the idea of using public funds to stimulate economic growth. There are pending constitutional and legal issues pertaining to the President’s power to realign “savings.” But, the key question that has preoccupied the public mind and has been left unanswered is: Why was it necessary to allot a portion of these funds (the President says about 9 percent of the total) to lawmakers for their special projects? Is the present administration so lacking in good ideas of its own that it needed to ask lawmakers to propose their own projects? If the idea was to engage Congress, why didn’t the President consult Congress as a body? Why were the DAP funds distributed as dole to individual lawmakers? How does this jibe with good governance?

On the so called “presidential pork”.  Again, no one questions the government’s need to set aside lump-sum funds to cover contingencies like disasters. As far as I know, no one accuses President Aquino of having misused or abused these funds. The questions that are being raised rather are: What are these different lump-sum funds under the President? How much do they amount to? Drawing from past experience, can we not put safeguards on such funds so that their judicious use is not made wholly dependent on the personal integrity of a sitting president?

These are fair questions to ask, and the public deserves straightforward answers—particularly from an administration that was explicitly elected to office to reform a rotten political system. It would have been utterly useless to raise these questions to the Arroyo administration. The public honors P-Noy by asking him. The President himself intimated in his speech that the only way to answer such questions is by telling the truth. Since I don’t believe P-Noy’s personal integrity has ever been in doubt, I thought it was superfluous for him to tell the world that he does not steal. To say this in the face of questions about the conduct of government as a whole is not only to miss the point, it is also to unwittingly allow one’s honesty to serve as a shield for the misdeeds of others.

Good governance is not all about preventing and punishing the theft of public funds. It is about putting effective systems of accountability in place so that the bad apples in government are spotted before they can hide behind the admirable record of others. It is also about setting new and higher standards of competence in public service and not being content with tweaking the old system. It is about applying stricter ethics, and demanding more from one’s own team, before one says anything about the shortcomings of the other party. It is about ending patronage and realizing the full promise of democracy.

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