What will they debate?

We don’t know exactly what prompted embattled Vice President Jejomar Binay to dare Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV to face him in a debate. The challenge seems to me to stem more from personal animosity than from any sharp policy difference between them.

There are three senators who are conducting the hearings on corruption allegations against Binay—Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Trillanes. Binay singled out Trillanes, who is not a lawyer, but who has made the bluntest statements against him and his family. While Trillanes has readily accepted Binay’s dare, I doubt if it’s going to be easy for the two camps to agree on the precise formulation of the issue, the format, and the rules of the debate.

Ideally, politicians should be debating solutions or approaches to national problems rather than settling personal scores. Yet, at this point, we have no idea what proposition, if any, they will debate, or whether they will leave it to a moderator or a panel to ask the questions. Electoral debates usually adopt the latter format, but we are not in a campaign period, and only Binay has, so far, declared his intention to seek the presidency in 2016.

A debate, of course, can happen for any reason, over any issue, and at any time. But, regardless of what kind of debate is contemplated, there must be rules. The rules are meant to ensure fairness and to give some structure to the discussion. Time is limited and the speakers can’t tackle everything in a debate.

The rules can be general or they can be very detailed. Recently, a scheduled debate between the two contenders for governor of Florida in the United States was nearly aborted when one of the protagonists complained about an electric fan behind the lectern of his opponent. The rules explicitly prohibited the debaters from bringing onstage any electric or electronic device. The offending fan had to be removed before the debate could start.

Neither Binay nor Trillanes is an experienced debater, which probably explains why they were both quick to agree to a rhetorical duel even before the topic and the terms of the debate could be defined. Binay might have viewed his challenge as a way of drawing Trillanes out of the Senate’s parliamentary shield and holding him legally accountable for whatever he might say during the debate. (But, would it not be unsporting for Binay to seek legal redress for something that might be said in the context of a debate that he himself initiated?) On the other hand, Trillanes might think he has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a one-on-one encounter with the man who is reputed to be the frontrunner for the presidency. But there are always risks. A formal debate is a highly structured discussion. The less professional the debaters, the greater the likelihood that the exchange may be marked by immoderate behavior and costly gaffes. Binay and Trillanes could both end up badly bruised and looking unworthy in the public eye.

In hurling the challenge to a debate, Binay said: “So let’s face off so the truth will be known.” One wonders what particular “truth” he is seeking here as an object of debate. Just to show how contentious the very choice of a proposition can be, let us consider some possibilities:

Proposition 1: “Makati City Hall Building II is grossly overpriced and bears the familiar marks of corruption.”

Proposition 2: “The controversial property in Rosario, Batangas, known as ‘Hacienda Binay’ is part of the unexplained wealth of the Vice President’s family.”

Proposition 3: “Vice President Binay owes it to the Filipino people to appear before the Senate inquiry to answer the allegations of corruption against him and his family.”

Proposition 4: “The allegations of corruption against Vice President Binay and his family are based on lies.”

Proposition 5: “The ongoing Senate hearings of the blue ribbon subcommittee have prejudged the Vice President and are intended to demolish his political standing.”

Proposition 6: “The governance of Makati City by the Binays has been exemplary.”

Note that the first three propositions place Binay on the defensive, but, as the affirmative side, Trillanes will have to assume the burden of the proof. On the other hand, in the last three propositions, Binay takes the affirmative side and assumes the burden of the proof, while putting him squarely on the offensive. Being a lawyer, Binay probably enjoys a slight edge over the temperamental Trillanes. But, in a televised debate, the latter’s brusqueness could be taken as a more effective vehicle of truthfulness than the careful language of a lawyer.

We don’t know how the debate sponsors will formulate the issue. To me, more than the rules, this is the most difficult item to settle. I am partial to Propositions 3 and 6 because I think they offer ample opportunity for discussing policy and governance issues. From a media perspective, however, they may be the least interesting.

The public has been primed to watch a brawl rather than to listen to a sober debate between two high-ranking public officials on a question of fundamental and national importance. The occasion will no doubt raise the national profile of these two politicians, but other than providing the public a chance to assess their worthiness for higher political office, it’s not certain how this debate will contribute to raising the quality of political discourse in our country.

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