8/23/2013
Losing control of the narrative

Earlier today, for nine televised minutes, Noynoy Aquino called for the scrapping of the Priority Development Assistance Fund, or what we all call "pork barrel".

In nine minutes, he explained that the PDAF was formulated with good intentions - to allow legislators to identify and fund projects that local government units cannot implement on their own - but was marred by abusive politicians who, in his words, "treat [the] PDAF as their own private fund, to use as they please."

In nine minutes, he illustrated how he has always been against this irresponsible use of the PDAF, by voting against the 2007 budget - a budget that was delayed by political bickering, to the extent that 2007 rolled in and the government had to work with the previous year's budget. Why, he argued, would he allow a budget that's good for twelve months be used for only eight?

In nine minutes, he declared that, after the revelations of the past few weeks, it's time for the government to abolish the PDAF, concurrent with the establishment of an inter-agency anti-graft council that will go after those who have misused their pork barrel and recover assets that came off it.

In nine minutes, he outlined a new mechanism that will replace the current system: essentially, legislators can only use the "new" PDAF to fund a smaller pool of projects, and these projects have to be approved by Congress as they deliberate on the government budget, thus removing the opaque and discretionary nature of pork barrel.

So far, so good, right?

The reaction to Noynoy's address was muted and cautious, to say the least. I assume that's not the outcome his press team was looking for. The president has spoken, definitively, about a topic that's on top of public consciousness at the moment, a topic that shows the extent of the rottenness of government mechanisms. The president has outlined, decisively, a way to eradicate such corruption, to bring back the people's good faith in the government. Why is nobody (but the converted) celebrating?

Noynoy has, unfortunately, said too little, too late when it comes to this issue.

Granted, he has a pretty fine line to toe. The citizenry wants pork barrel abolished entirely, after the steady stream of revelations about PDAF misuse, of bogus NGOs enacting bogus projects to funnel government funds straight to select pockets. The legislature, for reasons we can only speculate about, don't want to scrap pork barrel. Noynoy relies on them to help him pass what he deems are necessary reform laws - he can't risk alienating them the way he already did with the judiciary, right?

But Noynoy enjoys wide support in the legislature, and as we've seen in several occasions, they will pretty much do what the president asks them to. They kicked Renato Corona out of office, passed the Reproductive Health bill, and dilly-dallied on the Freedom of Information bill. I'm sure if he asks them to let go of their pork barrel, they would do so, even with a hint of hesitation, if it means showing to the people that they do have their principles and maybe, maybe, extend their political lives.

And that is perhaps what he did this time. The "new" PDAF is essentially a compromise. The current system is essentially a lump sum that you spend as you see fit. Nobody gets a look-in until the end of the fiscal year, when you outline the projects you have supposedly funded with your pork - and that doesn't get scrutinized until, say, when the government orders the Commission on Audit to look into it, like they did this week for funds released from 2007-2009.

The "new" PDAF has, in theory, much more oversight. More stringent rules in place. Legislators cannot fund "soft" projects like farming tools, medicine and youth sports leagues. Legislators cannot fund temporary infrastructure projects like dredging rivers or fixing roads. Legislators cannot course their PDAF through NGOs and GOCCs. In other words, the PDAF can only be used for projects that have a more permanent effect on the relevant constituents (and only the relevant constituents) and it has to go through processes like most items on the national budget.

But of course, kung gusto, may paraan; kung ayaw, may dahilan. The "new" PDAF isn't a perfect solution. Somebody can always overprice a project. Somebody can always favor a particular bidder.

Noynoy also called for an inter-agency look into PDAF misuse, and vowed to prosecute those who are proven to have abused the funds. This, you have to admit, is easier to imagine. Say, the government catches Janet Lim Napoles, and finds her guilty of stealing up to ten billion pesos in government funds, and takes away her 28 houses and 30 cars. That's pretty easy to imagine, and maybe, like in The Secret, if you imagine it hard enough, it will happen.

But can the government really catch everyone who's misused the PDAF? It's a terribly hidden secret - nobody's hands are clean from pork barrel, and those who have publicly disavowed its use have other skeletons in their closet, like Ping Lacson and all of the allegations against him. Speaker Sonny Belmonte said as much after Noynoy's nine televised minutes. "Siyempre may mga magagalit," he said.

Think about it. Can the government really chase after everyone, and prosecute everyone, and recover everything? Of course not. What the government will do is pick one person and make him the center of attention, call him a major cause of corruption, and damn him to hell. They did it to Corona, and they're doing it now to Napoles, and they're likely going to do it to Bong Revilla next. The whole thing becomes another political side show, and as it progresses people will feel accomplished, and as they do, things sneak past them.

Only this time, it hasn't quite gone so quietly. The discourse on pork barrel has reached a point where the focus isn't just on a businesswoman mooching money off government with the help of several lawmakers. It's 2013 already. When one misses a particular aspect of an issue, someone else points it out. We're not just talking about Napoles and her many houses. We're now talking about everybody else's pork barrel, from legislators to government agencies to Noynoy Aquino himself.

The PDAF is just a small portion of these discretionary funds. Social Watch Philippines talks of special purpose funds, or SRFs, similar lump sums that comprise 22% of the national budget, and are also prone to, to paraphrase Noynoy, be treated as their own private fund. Noynoy himself has his own discretionary funds, and depending on who you believe, it's as low as 100 billion pesos and as high as a trillion pesos. As public opinion goes, if Noynoy really is serious about curbing corruption, he should start in his own house and scrap his own lump sums.

But instead, the president dilly-dallied when it came to pork barrel. He didn't mention it during the SONA. He brushed the pork barrel scam aside, saying Gloria Arroyo's corruption scandals are worse. He was even against abolishing PDAF, saying "there are good uses and bad uses," and instead calls for "[applying] the appropriate punishment for the misuse, but support its good use especially in communities outside [Metro Manila]."

Both houses of Congress said they won't probe the pork barrel scam, citing the need for relevant parties to finish their probes. But as public clamor for an investigation came up - exacerbated, no doubt, by monsoon rains and floods battering Luzon for the most of the past week, those tweets of how pork barrel money could've gone to a decent flood control system - the Senate decided that they will make an investigation. Chiz Escudero has called for the scrapping of PDAF altogether, and suddenly he has 15 senators behind him. Again, this is just the PDAF.

While this has been going on, social media was abuzz with calls for nationwide protests demanding that the whole government - the executive and the legislature, particularly - explain why they have pork barrel on their budgets, and call for their outright abolition. On Monday, the so-called Million People March will take place at the Quirino Grandstand and in other public venues across the country, demanding to know why government officials take Filipinos' hard-earned taxes and shove it down their pockets. It is now poised to be the first major demonstration under Noynoy's term, a sign that not all is well in his shiny happy wonderland. They're even talking about it now on television - it's that inescapable.

"Bakit tayo kakabahan?" the president said, when asked about these protests minutes after his televised address. "Maraming salamat sa kanila, dumami ang ating kakampi laban sa katiwalian."

But of course Noynoy's nervous. He's very, very nervous. His presidency is based on the illusion that everything is going well in the Philippines - like in The Secret, if you imagine it hard enough, it will happen - and any sign of things not going as well as he wants it to seem is met with skepticism, if not outright aggression. Why would the president constantly beg reporters to not focus on what he calls "bad news"?

Image is everything to Noynoy Aquino, which explains why he, out of the blue, took nine televised minutes and called for the abolition of a small (yet controversial) portion of pork barrel. After weeks of sitting on the story, he decided to make a stand and reaffirm his anti-corruption position - a position we've always shared, a position that led him to being president in the first place. The problem is, he has lost control of the narrative, and no amount of spin can exonerate him from the corruption his actions, or lack of it, has caused.

And your responses...

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