When "in good faith" is not good enough

At six o'clock tonight, Noynoy Aquino will take to the airwaves again, ostensibly to "discuss current issues". Of course, we all know he'll take to the airwaves to defend the Disbursement Acceleration Program, a government spending scheme where savings gathered by different agencies are gathered and reallocated, to jumpstart an economy that began flagging after a slowdown in public sector spending.

From the moment the now detained senator Jinggoy Estrada revealed the existence of the program, portraying it as an "incentive" given to senators who voted to impeach former Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona, the president's fight against corruption (or, specifically, his fight against corruption during his predecessor's time) has threatened to bite him in unwanted places. Critics have called the DAP "presidential pork", because of its similarities with the controversial Priority Development Assistance Fund, notably its a lump sum not appropriated to anything in the annual budget. How could Noynoy, his critics cried, fight one kind of pork barrel and keep another one to himself?

Noynoy and his allies unceasingly defended the program, claiming that the DAP had a key role in the stellar performance of the Philippine economy to date. To their credits, the numbers do support their argument: our economy grew around 7% each quarter in the past couple of years, with this quarter's slowdown easily (and sensibly) attributed to typhoon Yolanda. International financial groups have expressed their optimism for the country, and foreign investors are giving us a second look. Unfortunately, they also bolstered their argument by calling anybody who disagrees as haters who are merely bent on bringing the country back to the dark times.

Two weeks ago the Supreme Court finally decided on the many petitions against the DAP, by calling the program "partially unconstitutional". They singled out the program's main thrusts - of "cross-border savings", or taking savings from one department and transferring them to another; of spending said savings on items that are not listed in the annual budget - as going against the country's basic law. Interestingly, the Supreme Court decision also said that there is no need for legislators to return the money they procured through DAP, especially since some of the funds went to infrastructure projects - although an audit of the funds might reverse the decision.

They also said that determining whether Noynoy, or his budget secretary Butch Abad, acted in good faith in implementing the DAP is outside of their scope. That didn't stop the critics - and some friendly skeptics - from calling for, at the very least, Abad's resignation, supposedly to save the president's face. Abad did resign, but Noynoy refused to accept it: "To accept his resignation is to assign to him a wrong, and I cannot accept the notion that doing right by our people is a wrong," he said during a cabinet meeting last week. (Abad later said he wouldn't pursue his resignation, making the whole "I quit" thing look very much like a farce.)

That leads us to tonight, and to another televised address, the government successfully getting airtime on all networks so he can, in their words, "discuss current issues". Thanks to his status as arguably the most newsworthy person in the land, and a news media bent on regurgitating statements without analysis, Noynoy's side will be the most pervasive one.

Pending an extraordinary change of heart, it's easy to predict what he will say. One, the DAP is perfectly legal and within the bounds of the constitution. This will set the stage for an appeal to the Supreme Court, an appeal that cannot wait for the State of the Nation Address at the end of the month. (Journalist Raissa Robles raises an interesting point about the high court's decision: Noynoy might be right after all.) Two, even if the DAP is still deemed unconstitutional despite further scrutiny, the government - notably, Abad, for drafting it, and Noynoy himself, for approving it - acted in good faith; thus, there is little to no basis for a case to be filed against them. Three, the benefits of the DAP - the economic indicators, the infrastructure projects - are undeniable, even to the most "vociferous critics", that questioning the thing that reaped said rewards is folly.

Of course, tonight's televised address is essentially a press release, designed to yet again assuage Filipinos amidst crumbling trust ratings and a continually besmirched image. As with all press releases, it only portrays one side, and in a good light at that; it says nothing of the nuances of the issues.

I'm not suggesting the other side is showing off all of it nuances, either. The other end - those aforementioned "vociferous critics", which, depending on your orientation, could include militant groups, the Makabayan bloc of legislators, members of the opposition, media personalities, and folks like me foolish enough to write these things and publish them online - have boiled down the DAP to its essence. One, the DAP is essentially pork barrel. Two, the president can use it (and, possibly, has used it) to curry favor from other political personalities to do his bidding. Three, the president should be impeached over the affair, as it is tantamount to corruption.

I myself have said that Noynoy Aquino is as corrupt as Gloria Arroyo, but don't expect me to call for his impeachment. It is essentially junk food: it leaves us satisfied, but the feeling fades away and we realize we haven't got much to play with. What did we get when Renato Corona was removed from the Supreme Court? Everything still remains muddled. He's yet to be tried, in the courts he used to work for, of the allegations against him. The only winner is Noynoy Aquino, who got to proclaim the trial as a win in his so-called fight against corruption, one that's looking like a farce to more and more people.

If an impeachment trial against Noynoy proceeds, what do we get, apart from the instability it will cause? And no, I'm not saying this because I'm afraid of Jojo Binay as president. Impeachment is, inherently, a political exercise, a high-stakes drama where different parties try to look good to everybody else just as the reset button is hit. And then there's the fact that Noynoy's allies have a hold of the Senate and the House of Representatives, which makes the whole thing, at most, a week-long distraction.

We have this rare opportunity to deeply understand the inner workings of our government - a government that we voted for, a government that is answerable to us, a government that should work for us. If we're going to clamor for results without knowing the process, then what is that result for? Shouldn't we be trying to bust the constant muddling of the issue? Shouldn't we be trying to make better decisions out of this? We won't get that with an impeachment trial. We won't get that with an elaborate impasse in favor of the government, either.

So, the DAP. It is, they say, a spending program designed to kickstart the economy by taking whatever money government agencies have saved, and putting them to other places that need it the most. In 2010, when Noynoy assumed office, public spending slowed down, the result of his policy of even closer scrutiny on where government funds go. While it helped combat perceptions of corruption, it rendered the economy sluggish, with growth rates suggesting we could do much better. (It just suggested that looking like you're combating corruption can only go so far.) The DAP enabled the government to spur growth by funding projects that would benefit the Philippine economy - although the way it did just that was, according to the Supreme Court, unconstitutional.

Government apologists have suggested that the problem simply stems from lack of information, that the greater population is not aware of the projects the DAP funded, implying that once they are, they would turn around and fully support the controversial scheme. But that is suggesting - wrongly - that the DAP single-handedly improved the economy. There's the economic policies implemented by the government's financial gurus. There's the luck of good timing, of the American and European economies slowing down, of the Chinese economy starting to show cracks. There's the improving image of the Philippines, although not everybody subscribes to this as much as the government does. There are many reasons why an economy improves - what the government is doing is oversimplifying an issue to benefit its argument.

The other problem is the slower-than-molasses "trickle-down" effect, the benefits of a supposedly booming economy not reaching every nook and cranny of the Philippines. For a population that's long been fed promises of prosperity, the drama surrounding the DAP is making them more frustrated. The discourse hasn't reached the point where the term "wealth inequality" is bandied about by people who aren't necessarily cause-oriented, but that's what we're seeing today. The poor are getting poorer, and the rich are getting richer. I'm from the middle class and I have a steady job, but I highly doubt I could buy my own house. I feel it's an impossible undertaking at this point. It feels like saving a lot of money is not enough; it feels like getting two jobs is not enough. I don't know where to start, but I'm pretty certain the way things work right now are stacked in favor of those who can afford things, and when these people say the DAP is working, I imagine the vast majority - those who are in a worse position than I am - clenching their fists in anger, and then weeping in frustration.

The reaction to the DAP is from a population increasingly frustrated by how much worse, in their eyes, things are getting. Add to that the feeling that they've been duped by a guy who they trusted too much (and allowed them to trust him to much) to drag them out of their doldrums. But, of course, we can't expect Noynoy and his allies to talk straight to us about the DAP. Tonight's address - which I don't have to watch, although I couldn't even if I want to, because I'm attending a stag party of sorts - is a press release, designed to yet again assuage Filipinos amidst crumbling trust ratings and a continually besmirched image. The DAP is legal, the DAP is good, the DAP is right. The DAP is legal, the DAP is good, the DAP is right.

Let's say that, yes, the program was done in good faith. And, yes, the economic benefits are significant. But does it have to be done in the manner they did it? Does the government's economic stimulus program have to involve taking savings from every agency and transferring them into one big pot? Does it have to involve taking the savings made from more efficient construction of schools, say, and giving it to a beautification program, instead of using those savings to build yet more schools? Does it have to involve money being spent on items that are not provided for by law? With the government insisting it is not corrupt, while its methods actually undermine that claim, there's enough grounds to be frustrated, to be angry. It's not a case of "you don't understand - work in government and you'll see we're right". We're tired of all that we've seen before, and to see it again just when we thought we wouldn't - it's a punch in the gut and a kick in the balls.

But, yes, we're tired. We're tired of repeating ourselves, because where will this bring us anyway? As a country it feels like we've been forced to a corner. We have the supposed least worst option running things; all potential successors also seem to be the least worst option, in one way or another. Where else do we go to?

This is why we have to seize the opportunity the whole DAP brouhaha has provided us. To our credit, we have done that to the PDAF - and regardless of whether you're satisfied with how the cases against Janet Lim Napoles and the three senators involved in swindling government funds are moving, you have to admit that it has given us a wider understanding of government budgets, and not the sort that would fade so easily because of our collective amnesia. But we have to continue pushing. No sacred cows, not even a president who claims to be the best thing the country has ever had. We won't get satisfactory answers from press releases - the DBM's DAP mini-site says so little - and we can no longer take everybody's word at face value. The best place to start is an audit of the DAP funds, all of it, from 2011 onwards. If Noynoy insists his program is clean, then why won't he be forthcoming with us? Why is he so afraid of being truthful, for once?

And your responses...

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