Dissonance and doublespeak
The reiteration of the drug war was there. And so was the insistence on the correctness of his stance toward China. But, surprisingly, for his fourth State of the Nation Address, President Duterte didn’t dwell too much on his pet themes. He returned, instead, to his old and tested battle cry of fighting corruption, spending a good part of his one-and-a-half-hour speech to venting frustration about it.
It’s a theme and an image that have undoubtedly served him well, first in his phenomenal campaign and now in the first three years of his presidency. His public approval ratings, as he pointed out in his speech, are practically through the roof midway through his term. And yet, despite his unyielding battle against it, Mr. Duterte rued that corruption is still everywhere, fueled by the greed of officialdom and the selfishness of people.
“It is both a national embarrassment and a national shame,” he thundered. “For every transaction, a commission; for every action, extortion; and a request that goes on and on—endlessly and shamelessly.”
Turning to a joke, he said: “The Philippines is so corrupt… that if you kill all the senators and congressmen and the President, we will have a new day.” If a quake happened that very moment, he added, the cleansing would have been achieved.
Nervous laughter all around. This was Congress and the country’s top officialdom before him; touché, as they say. In the latest budget, legislators from Mr. Duterte’s supermajority had brought back the hated pork barrel, a source of gargantuan corruption in the recent past, and divvied up billions of pesos of allocations among themselves. But such was Mr. Duterte’s supposed disdain for corruption that… he said not one word about it.
He did, at one point, asked Congress to reimpose the death penalty not only for drug trafficking, but also for plunder.
Show director Joyce Bernal should have, at that moment, panned across the faces of two former presidents occupying choice seats in the audience — Joseph Estrada, convicted of plunder but then pardoned by the succeeding president seated beside him, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, herself charged with plunder but eventually exonerated, for which she then publicly thanked Mr. Duterte for, as she put it, “providing the atmosphere” that led to her acquittal.
Also in the audience: comebacking Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., fresh off his “not guilty” triumph over the same charges, and, like Arroyo and Estrada, a staunch ally of the corruption-loathing President.
Right there for all to see are the glaring dissonance, doublespeak and inconsistency that have marked Mr. Duterte’s vaunted anticorruption fight.
“There are no sacred cows in my administration,” he said — true, because the Arroyos, the Marcoses and their like are more like golden calves, rendered untouchable under his protectorship.
Imelda Marcos, too, has been convicted of graft, but has yet to see the inside of a jailhouse.
Meanwhile, Mr. Duterte could boast that he had fired or forced to resign around 100 government officials and put under investigation some 63 personnel of the graft-ridden Bureau of Customs (BOC).
Fair enough. Except, while dozens of lowly BOC employees were thus being publicly lashed, the big fish are out free.
Former commissioner Nicanor Faeldon and his successor Isidro Lapeña, both enmeshed in drug smuggling controversies and both friends of the President, were not only not fired for the fiascoes under their watch, they were even rewarded with new posts.
Mr. Duterte expressed exasperation at the massive fraud at PhilHealth (exposed by this paper) because, according to him, “the government is conned of millions of pesos.”
That also rings hollow with his administration’s reluctance to exert even a token effort to retrieve the millions paid to the Tulfos, among his shrillest supporters, for an advertising deal tainted by conflict-of-interest issues.
As proof of his commitment to eradicating corruption, he encouraged greater scrutiny of his governance: “You are free to investigate, I don’t take offense. If there is anything wrong in my department, the executive, you are free to open an investigation anytime… Feel free to expose anything that is not in accordance with law.”
And yet Mr. Duterte has also repeatedly threatened Commission on Audit personnel for allegedly “making life hard” for government officials with their assiduous rules on the use of public funds and transparency in official transactions.
“When will corruption end?” Mr. Duterte asked. Errr, answer’s with you, Sir. Also, wrong crowd to ask.
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