Vote of confidence

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House Speaker Jose de Venecia’s campaign to raise P5 billion in donations from business and government officials has provoked the usual partisan responses as well as middling business response.

Like good de Venecia soldiers, 68 members of the House majority so far have agreed to have one month’s salary remitted to the National Treasury. But the 26 members of the minority have balked at doing the same thing, and have decided instead to pool their donations for turn-over to a civic organization that would build schoolhouses.

Having deplored graft and corruption in the government, it would not make sense for them to entrust additional funds to it. Like some donor countries, they prefer to have the private sector take charge—an indictment, incidentally, not only of the present administration, but of all past Philippine governments.

Meanwhile, the business community, many of whose leading members supported, campaigned for and donated to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the last elections, seems enthusiastic only in words. Their pledges were surprisingly niggardly for a community everyone expects to put its money where its mouth is. One group called Koalisyon ng Inang Daan (KID) promised P100 million to show it wasn’t kidding. The Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce pledged a mere P56 million, its rival Filipino Chinese Business Club a pittance at P16 million. Businessmen Lucio Tan and Jimmy Tang committed P1 million each, following the example, it seems, of Mrs. Arroyo and her son, Pampanga Congressman Juan Miguel Arroyo, and of at least two Cabinet members who pledged P500,000 each.

The total so far raised by the de Venecia campaign as of the weekend was P350 million. No one has to be a math whiz to realize that the sum will make hardly a dent on the government deficit and the national debt now currently running in the trillions. The opposition’s Senator Aquilino Pimentel did point that out anyway, at the same time that he warned that the de Venecia campaign could give the international community the impression that things are so bad the government has to resort to such desperate measures.

Both the House opposition and Senator Pimentel have a point: the first in assuming, although without saying, that if turned over to Malacanang whatever amounts raised from donations could be misspent; and the second for pointing out what’s obvious but true—that the same donations are not likely to have enough of an impact on either the budget deficit or the national debt to stave off the possibility of a total financial collapse by 2006.

The financial woes of the government are in the first place its own making. The current fiscal crisis is the result of the lethal combination of profligacy, corruption and misplaced priorities that apparently reached unprecedented levels during the Marcos period which covers the first Marcos term (1965 to 1969), part of the second (1970 to 1972) and martial law (1972 to 1986).

Literally the biggest and most concrete example of the corruption and misspending of the latter period is the kick-back built Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. The debts the government incurred from that overpriced project—doomed from its very start never to be operated by any half-way responsible government because of its 10,000 design flaws and its location on an earthquake fault—constitute a huge chunk of the national debt, for the servicing of which Congress automatically allots 37 percent of the national budget.

The BNPP was only one of many examples of the criminal irresponsibility of the Marcos regime, which by the time it ended had incurred for the Philippines a US$30 billion debt, was driving the country into the ranks of the Fourth World, and had managed to destroy the economic gains of the previous two decades to force hundreds of thousands of Filipinos into servitude overseas.

Succeeding governments should have learned from its negative example, but didn’t. Instead the crooks that remained in government, joined it for the first time, or reentered it after more than a decade of being out in the cold, learned from it the creativity with which to devise a host of means to steal from the treasury, line their own pockets, and impoverish the country further.

In keeping with the Marcos “tradition,” the costs of corruption henceforth ran into the hundreds of millions and even billions, and in some cases involved dollars and euros. Behest loans, onerous contracts, flawed bidding and procurement processes, kickbacks and bribes, gargantuan projects no one needed while the projects that could benefit the poor were never even planned—name it and they did it. At the same time, a combination of incompetence and the same beast of corruption steadily ate into the capacity of the government’s revenue agencies to meet their collection goals.

In this context, the opposition congressmen who’d rather donate P5,000 out of their monthly salaries to a civic organization indeed have a point. It does make sense not to trust the government, even if one’s part of it—or perhaps because, being part of it though in the opposition, one knows how easily vast amounts can disappear in the maws of greed and total indifference to anyone else’s welfare except one’s own.

On the other hand, Senator Pimentel’s criticism is only partly correct. Given the vast amounts needed to address the crisis, the donations De Venecia wants will hardly make a difference. But while indeed his campaign does look like an attempt to earn brownie points among a populace eager to see some sign of self-sacrifice from its so-called public servants, it won’t necessarily be sending negative signals to the international community, by which term Pimentel probably means foreign investors.

The wisdom of the decades-old policy of encouraging foreign investments aside, a credible response from business, political leaders and ordinary citizens to the appeal for donations to help bail out the government can convince both citizens as well as foreign observers that there’s still some civic sense left in this country, and therefore still some hope for it. In the present circumstances, that could be enough to convince would-be foreign investors that investing in this country could pay off, and to give it their vote of confidence.

In the wake of the 1997 economic collapse, Thai citizens—businessmen and monks, students and housewives—did not so much contribute enough to boost the value of the Thai baht as to encourage confidence in the country as an investment haven.

Beyond making the same thing possible in the Philippines, however, the call for donations from business, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary citizens could also commit at least a portion of the citizenry and their officials to doing something. By giving up even small amounts of that which is closest to their hearts (money), perhaps they can finally muster the will to hold the country’s welfare above class, family and self.

De Venecia, however, should make it a point to target for donations the worst tax cheats, and the most corrupt and the most crooked among the Philippine elite and the country’s damaged institutions so that they may have the opportunity to return at least a slice of their ill-gotten wealth to the country they have wronged so much.

The House opposition’s caveat still applies, however. While something in the same category as God, motherhood and country, the call for donations should not result in the usual suspects’ getting their hands on the amounts raised. That would only add further conviction to the growing belief in certain sectors that only a revolution can ever cure the galaxy of ills Filipino flesh is heir to.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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