‘Sleight of mind’
Heading them off at the pass. That’s what they used to say in the old cowboy-injun movies to describe a move by one group to prevent another group from arriving at their desired destination. And that is what describes, at least as far as I am concerned, the announcement made yesterday (Friday) by President Aquino, flanked by Senate President Frank Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte. He/they are trying to head us off at the pass.
What are they trying to prevent, or more accurately, diffuse? The picnic-rallies set for Monday, of course. Isn’t it obvious? Duh. The ones to be held at the Luneta and at various other places all over the Philippines, the ones that everyone (including yours truly) and her brother are intending to attend, to show their great displeasure with the pork barrel and to demand, as the President’s “boss,” that it be abolished.
Am I being unduly suspicious or cynical? I don’t think so. Only consider that as recently as the last week or two, P-Noy was defending the pork barrel, declaring that the legislators were in the best position to know what was good for their districts. (But what about the senators?) As a matter of fact, in yesterday’s statement, P-Noy actually starts by affirming that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy,” and that enabling our representatives to identify projects for their communities that otherwise were not affordable was a “worthy goal.”
After the Commission on Audit (COA) report came out last Friday—which essentially showed that the extent of the pork barrel waste and cheating of the Filipino people was mind-boggling (75 percent of the audited “soft pork” releases were riddled with irregularities, which apparently made COA Chair Grace Tan cry and dwarfed the Napoles issue)—P-Noy made a move in the right direction: He ordered all PDAF releases to be suspended pending the results of the investigation. (Who was to do the investigation he didn’t say.)
But even as late as two days ago (Thursday morning), he was described in news reports as being “cool” to the idea of pork barrel abolition.
What happened between two days ago and yesterday that made him (seemingly) change his tune? My guess is that while his people were totally cognizant of the critical views of the so-called “opinion-makers” or “opinion-shapers,” they realized only on Thursday night that they had grossly underestimated the power and magic of the Internet.
It was through the Internet that people who were outraged that their tax money was being diverted to the private pockets of individuals who were sworn to serve them and who were obviously not only acting in collusion with each other, but doing it with in-your-face impunity, found out that they were not alone in their anger. And by Thursday evening, it became glaringly obvious that the idea of a picnic/rally/get-together of these like-minded individuals had spread like wildfire and was being met with enthusiasm. I know that everyone I asked who was ambulatory indicated her intention of going to the Quirino Grandstand on Monday. And it looks like the same phenomenon was taking place in areas outside Metro Manila—e.g., Cebu, Davao, Baguio.
The Aquino administration was faced with the classic (from the 1976 movie “Network”): “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” collective reaction. Their countermove was to (pardon the metaphor mixing) try to head them off at the pass—in this case, to reduce the enthusiasm for, and therefore the attendance at, Monday’s rally.)
How? The President announced that “it is time to abolish the PDAF.”
Great? We don’t have to rally anymore? He is giving us what we want?
Not at all. There’s a sleight of mind going on here. Notice he didn’t say “abolish the pork barrel,” he said “abolish the PDAF”. The hope is that we will equate the two.
The PDAF will formally go. But the pork barrel stays. What will change is its presentation. No more lump sums for each legislator. Replacing it will be line items for projects—which is exactly the form that the pork barrel in the United States (which we copied but “improved”) takes. But you can be sure that these items will total P70 million times the number of Congress people plus P200 million times the number of senators.
The President tells us that this method, plus all the other reforms—he enumerates them—will no longer make the pork barrel “susceptible to abuse or corruption.”
Please. A lot of the reforms he enumerates are already in the books. They have been ignored, with impunity. What makes him think they will not be ignored in the future?
Moreover, as has been emphasized in the latest Philippine Human Development Report 2012/2013, even if the pork barrel were corruption-free (which is a very unlikely scenario), this “divide-by-N syndrome”—“the mechanical and feckless dissipation of government funds across localities instead of their rational allocation to where these might have the most impact”—will still result in inefficiencies and inequities. At the same time, the work of local development councils and their own investment priorities, are passed over.
In other words, in this supposedly new, reformed, but still pork barrel system the President proposes, he will still be able to wield great power over Congress (he can veto any line item he wants); the legislators still can choose the projects they want and use them for reelection purposes; and the people will still be left holding the bag.
Who is the President kidding?
See you at the rally on Monday.