His own man

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THE claim that it’s not Benigno Aquino III who really wants to keep the pork barrel system intact, either by renaming it or by insisting that discretionary funds are not part of it, is straight out of the Marcos period.

Then it was Imelda Marcos who was being accused of all the terrible things Marcos was doing. Today, so some Aquinophiles argue, it’s either the Liberal Party, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr., Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II , or all of them together who want to preserve the pork barrel system.

The argument is an attempt to exonerate Mr. Aquino from his all too obvious resistance to dismantling the entire system including his control over more than a trillion pesos in Presidential discretionary funds including those in the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). It claims that those billions can assure a Liberal Party victory in the 2016 Presidential elections, when Roxas may still run for the post he has long coveted. (Although it would make better sense for the Liberal Party to field someone popular enough to win against Vice President Jejomar Binay, such as 2013 senatorial elections frontrunner Grace Poe.)

It’s plausible enough. Patronage, the power to distribute public funds to one’s allies and those other creatures of the political dung heap in this country who can deliver votes, does help win elections. Armed with the billions in funds he can distribute at will right now until the end of his term, Mr. Aquino can assure his party and his party’s candidates of victory over the so-called opposition, such as it is, and of staying on in office for at least another six years.

But if he is indeed resisting the dismantling of the pork barrel system because of pressure from the people around him, that would make Mr. Aquino precisely the kind of spineless and unprincipled leader he’s been inveighing against since the 2010 campaign.

The added irony is that the same argument would also put him in the same mold as the traditional politicians and dynasts who, by doing nothing except wallow in the muck of pork barrel and other funds they have access to, are responsible not only for the vast corruption that has metastasized in government, but also for the total mess the country and Philippine society is in. Taking the path of least resistance – by simply doing nothing and succumbing to the wishes of those around him – would not exonerate Mr. Aquino. It would instead make him as responsible for the consequences of his passive acceptance of the corrupt system as those other traditional politicians before him.

Those who claim it’s the people around him who’re to blame aren’t giving Mr. Aquino enough credit. The more likely possibility is that in his half-hearted and tentative response to the demands to abolish the pork barrel system , Mr. Aquino has been his own man, as he has been in many other instances.

At the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) forum last Wednesday, for example, Mr. Aquino went into a spirited defense of the DAP and the million-peso bonuses the executives of such government- owned and -controlled corporations as the Social Security System have been giving themselves.

He went into a defense mode by taking the offensive. He claimed that there was an opposition conspiracy afoot against his administration the “roomful of journalists” present should be watching and should have sensed. In response to questions about the possibility of the Philippine government’s apologizing to Hong Kong for the August 2010 Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking incident in which foreign tourists including some from Hong Kong were killed, Mr. Aquino also reiterated his argument that because the incident was the making of one man who was probably deranged, and not of the entire country, it wasn’t his administration’s responsibility.

Given the way things are in this country, an opposition conspiracy such as the one Mr. Aquino said was behind the claims that the DAP is part of the pork barrel system is possible. It wouldn’t make much sense. But it doesn’t have to, and could simply be the result of the workings of desperate and not necessarily brilliant, or even rational minds.

Whether such a conspiracy exists is hardly at issue, however. The fact is that the practice under the DAP of moving the savings of one government agency to another has been described by some of the most credible legal minds in the country as unconstitutional.

On the other hand, the bonuses Mr. Aquino insisted were legal and even legally mandated were handed out by an agency notorious for the atrocity of its services, from which pensioners receive paltry amounts monthly, but which has had the effrontery to implement plans to raise premiums next year. The outrage over the SSS bonuses has never been over their legality but over the agency’s obscene callousness to the needs and rights of its members who every month contribute from their meager private sector salaries the billions in funds its executives wrongly claim as their achievement.

As for the 2010 hostage-taking incident, the argument that it was the making of one man who was probably deranged misses the point. The demand for an apology has to do with the mishandling of the incident by Philippine officials and security forces, for which lapses Mr. Aquino is being asked to apologize. By no means have the officials of the Hong Kong government been saying that it was the fault of the entire country.

In his FOCAP appearance as in others in which media people were present, Mr. Aquino also followed up his often belligerent statements with a dig at the press, declaring that “In the midst of the cacophony of voices, the journalist must be able to separate the important from the frivolous, the spin from the facts, the malicious lies from the simple truth,” and therefore implying that journalists, as he has said in numerous other occasions, were failing to do so.

These are themes Mr. Aquino has been harping on for weeks, months and even years. They betray not only a stubborn, single-minded belief in his own righteousness, for which he impliedly takes responsibility, as every President of this country must take responsibility for the consequences of what he or she says, does, or fails to do.

As Mr. Aquino himself has made abundantly clear, he blames his predecessor for the state of the country he inherited in 2010. He’s absolutely right. The President of this country is not only in command of all its armed forces, he also appoints members of the Supreme Court including the Chief Justice, and, as millions of Filipinos have discovered, he also holds the purse strings through his control over pork barrel and other funds.

For what he’s saying, doing, or failing to do today, so must Mr. Aquino rather than the sycophants and hangers on around him be similarly credited – or blamed, as he’s been blaming Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. That truth doesn’t escape his countrymen, among whom his approval rating has fallen by 15 percent.

(BusinessWorld)

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