It doesn’t help the administration case much for its officials to continue blabbering about how it was necessary to keep the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement a secret, despite its being a “boring,” supposedly accounting instrument to facilitate US military aid to the Philippines and US access to “facilities” in the Philippines.

On the other hand, it doesn’t help those opposed to it either to keep on harping on the need for the Agreement to have passed Senate scrutiny first.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople and Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, for example, have been talking to media and doing the rounds of the media talk shows to defend the Agreement since its signing was announced last November 21.

They emphasize one theme, and it is that the MLSA is nothing to get all excited about since it is a mere executive agreement and not a treaty. In elaborating on this theme, however, the Ople-Reyes twins also say that it was necessary to keep it from Congress until it was signed to avoid debate, whether in that body, or among the public.

“[The MLSA] is an executive agreement,” said Reyes. “if [Congress had been briefed before the signing] it might [have triggered] debates.”

Ople has also been saying the same thing, but sang a slightly different tune this week, when he told the media that the contents of the MLSA were deliberately crafted to make it an executive agreement so it won’t have to go to the Senate, which has the power to enter into treaties.

Ople said that the MLSA does not contain “obligations of a substantial nature that would require it to be considered a treaty.” Ople also said that it was “Malacanang’s prerogative” to negotiate agreements with other countries “away from the public glare,” and at the same time offered the ingenuous explanation that the Executive Department could not share the contents of the Agreement with either Congress or the public because it was still under negotiation, and as yet had not been finally worded-or as that well-worn phrase would put it, it was “a work in progress.”

The problem with this part of the Foreign Affairs Secretary’s argument is that, surely, there was eventually a final draft acceptable to both the US and the Philippines, and it was that draft which could have been shared with Congress as well as the public before it was signed.

What the administration did instead was to sign the agreement first, and then invite Congress and the public to react.

“The Agreement is now in the public domain,” said Ople. “We are eager to discuss this with Congress and with the public to clarify any questions or concerns they may have.”

In other words, what Congress and the public have is a done deal, a signed “executive agreement” to the contents of which they can no longer contribute, or change. The only thing they can do is to seek “clarification” and to discuss their “concerns” with the Executive Department.

Aside from their being totally convenient to whatever purpose Malacanang had in mind in entering into the MLSA, the unstated assumption in both Reyes’ and Ople’s statements is that public and Congressional scrutiny and debate would have been a hindrance to the quick conclusion of the Agreement.

Public scrutiny and debate, no matter if they be over the trifle that the administration claims the MLSA to be, is at the heart of the democratic process. The primary reason for debate is not to provide grandstanders a forum, but to enable other views to be heard. The reason for this, which usually escapes those in power, is that no government has a monopoly over correct policies at all times, or even some of the time.

The public is also necessarily a party to the making of government policies in any democracy not only because those policies are bound to affect them, but also because decision-making is a right the citizenry has only delegated to its officials.

And yet two leading officials of the Philippine government, apparently with the blessings of the President, have gone on record to dismiss debate as unnecessary and even counter-productive.

That view assumes that the government is absolutely certain that it’s right about the MLSA, and by extension, about anything else relating to public policy. Therefore, about the MLSA or anything else, it does not have to consult either the public or Congress

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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