August 27, 2014

The juggernaut that’s the anti-pork movement

A year ago it had seemed that the spontaneous gesture of outrage by hundreds of thousands, who converged at the Rizal Park to protest the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) anomalies as exemplified by the 10 billion-peso Napoles scam, signaled the end to Congressional pork. 

President Benigno S. Aquino III, after vigorously defending the PDAF, then attempted to defuse the explosive situation by announcing that he and the leaders of Congress had agreed to do away with the PDAF.  He claimed that the pork barrel system was thereby effectively abolished in response to the people’s clamor.

Nonetheless, the protests continued with several sectors and budget reform advocates calling attention to huge lump sums of presidential pork that Malacanang used to sustain the canine loyalty of its allies in Congress and in various local government units. This accusation Malacanang vehemently denied.

Then came the Supreme Court ruling declaring the PDAF unconstitutional and placing restrictions on the use of the Presidential Social Fund but still left wide openings for pork to persist in other forms.  Reports of Malacanang assuring its allies in the House of Representatives that they can still have their pork, albeit hidden in different line agencies such as the Health and Education departments, swirled anew.  True enough pork reappeared through new and informal arrangements sans an incriminating official paper trail. 

The anti-pork movement began to focus more intently on presidential pork.  The Development Acceleration Program (DAP) in particular, caught its ire after Malacanang was forced to admit the DAP’s existence in the wake of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s revelation that senators had received additional pork as “incentive” to vote for the impeachment of then SC Chief Justice Corona, a Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointee and hold-out. 

Several tax payers’ suits against the DAP were filed with the High Court.  It appears that the case against the DAP was so solid, the Court unanimously ruled “acts and practices” under DAP unconstitutional; that is, the meat of DAP or DAP itself in essence was thumbed down by the SC. 

Malacanang was thus put on the spot and Mr. Aquino chose to challenge the SC over its DAP decision rather than risk graver consequences of meekly accepting it.  (It would appear that Malacanang believes that in this instance, offense is still the best defense.)

Mr. Aquino’s counteroffensive against the High Court is multi-pronged.  After making a defiant, high-profile defense of the DAP and issuing a stinging rebuke of the Supreme Court’s undercutting what he deems as part of Executive function and prerogative, the Office of the Solicitor General filed a Motion for Reconsideration on the DAP decision, recycling the same arguments.

In an obvious attempt to impugn the SC’s integrity, Mr. Aquino threw several accusations of misconduct against the Court in its handling of the Judicial Development Fund (JDF).  He also pushed his minions in the Lower House to take steps to investigate and eventually abolish the JDF calling it judicial pork.   It did not take long for Mr. Aquino’s attack dogs in the HOR to threaten Chief Justice Sereno with impeachment for the JDF’s alleged misuse. 

The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) for its part demanded the disclosure by the Court of all the justices’ Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SALN) and when this was not provided pronto by the SC, BIR Commissioner Henares went to town accusing the justices of making themselves an exception to the rule and of setting a bad example.  The BIR also suddenly saw it fit to implement an old and largely disregarded order to tax the benefits of judiciary employees  in a seeming attempt to tighten the screws on the entire third branch of government. 

In the latest move to undermine judicial independence, Mr. Aquino announced his openness to Charter change or amending the Constitution in order to curtail “judicial overreach” or its claimed judicial encroachment on the functions and powers of the Executive and the Legislative branches.  In the process, Mr. Aquino stands justly accused of teetering on the brink of dictatorship, with his attempt to reverse a Constitutional provision that vests the Supreme Court with the power to check abuses by either the President or Congress in the exercise of their powers.

Further, in a brazen if not surprising twist to the ongoing clash between Malacanang and the Court, Mr. Aquino has appointed his Solicitor General, the same government lawyer who defended the DAP before the Supreme Court, to the remaining vacant seat in that august body.  This development came after Solicitor General Jardeleza was excluded from the short list of nominees upon the instance of CJ Sereno but thereafter reinstated when he won his petition to the SC asking for the reversal of his exclusion..  Malacanang appears to be gaining some ground in its campaign to pressure and divide the Court as ithe latter reviews its unanimous DAP decision.

Unfortunately for Malacanang, the anti-pork movement continues to gain ground unfazed by his face-off with the Court and the looming constitutional crisis this has set into motion. 

The People’s Initiative (PI) to enact a law abolishing the pork barrel by means of the direct exercise of the people’s power to legislate was launched last August 23 through a People’s Congress held in Cebu City.  A rally in the city’s Plaza Independencia kicked off the mass signing of the petition for the PI. 

In Manila, a mammoth rally is in the making on August 25, to commemorate the Million People March against pork as well as to provide a venue for the seething anti-pork sentiments of the people to be expressed anew.  Dubbed “Stand up, Sign up against All Forms of Pork”, the event has quickly gained the support of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the Catholic Educators Association of the Philippines, the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

The PI is the latest response of the anti-pork movement to attempts by Mr. Aquino and his rubber-stamp Congress to further entrench the pork barrel system in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country.  The PI effort has the potential to galvanize and wield broad consensus, mobilize the citizenry for decisive legal and political action versus pork, and possibly render one of the most fatal blows against the Aquino regime’s vapid claims to good governance. #

Published in Business World
25 August 2014

August 10, 2014

Gaza on my mind

Apocalyptic.  That is the word used by those who saw Tacloban in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) to describe the devastation wrought on the city and its inhabitants.  That was the image captured in countless photographs and videos beamed to the world that stirred an outpouring of humanitarian aid from governments, non-government organizations and ordinary people.

Imagine such a scene in a place half a world away, in Gaza, a tiny strip of land only 350 kilometers in area and home since more than six decades ago to two million Palestinians, eighty per cent of whom are refugees from what is now modern-day Israel but what used to be a much bigger and united Palestine. (Today’s Palestine has been reduced to two separate enclaves: Gaza and the West Bank.)

The difference is that the cause of the latter’s apocalyptic situation is not a natural calamity but a completely man-made one.  For the past four weeks, the people of Gaza have been subjected to the most horrific bombardment through air, sea and land by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the fourth most powerful army in the world, as a form of collective punishment. 

The alleged cause of the latest Israeli military campaign, Operation Protective Edge, is the abduction and killing of three Israeli youth in a Jewish settlement built on land-grabbed Palestinian lands.  It is purportedly directed against Hamas, the revolutionary movement that was democratically elected by the Palestinians in Gaza to govern them.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the incident to blame Hamas and, without presenting any evidence as called upon by the United Nations, vowed to exact revenge for what could and should have been treated as a police matter and not as a reason to launch another blistering military assault on Gaza. 

What has emboldened the Israeli government to once more embark on its genocidal war against the Palestinian people is the unshakeable backing for Israel by the Western powers led by the United States of America on the one hand and their largely successful campaign to demonize Hamas as a ‘terrorist” organization, on the other.

Hamas and other armed militia groups have also launched retaliatory rocket attacks from Gaza but these cannot compare to the lethal power of the IDF’s artillery fire, attack planes, tanks and bombs, and other types of weapons including white phosphorous bombs that are outlawed by Geneva Conventions when used against civilians.

This is amply proven by the hugely disproportionate number of fatalities and wounded and the extent of destroyed civilian infrastructure suffered by the people of Gaza: 2000 killed and close to 10000 injured; houses, schools, hospitals, mosques, water facilities and electric grids leveled to the ground; and half a million displaced without food, water, shelter and medicines and exposed to unrelenting bombardments by the IDF.  The Israeli government reported sixty killed but mostly soldiers. 

Israel boasts of the efficiency of its Iron Dome anti-missile system to protect its citizens from the largely ineffectual, if symbolic, rocket fire from Gaza.  It is no secret that Israel is the recipient of 3billion dollars military aid annually from the US, comprising a third of the latters’ entire foreign aid budget.   In fact, in the midst of Israel’s latest armed attack on Gaza, the US Congress passed an additional $351 million funding for the Iron Dome system.

According to eyewitness accounts,  compared to the December 2008 to January 2009 conflict in Gaza, today’s is a much worse conflict because Israel had lined up tanks on the border with Gaza and had been indiscriminately shelling the entire Gaza strip thus accounting for the high death toll.

Entire neighborhoods are being destroyed in a deliberate scheme to extend what had been heretofore a 300-meter buffer zone into the Gaza strip into a three-kilometer zone effectively depriving the people 44 per cent of their land area.

The entire population of Gaza is under siege.  Everyone is affected by the bombings and gunfire, the scarcities from the blockade running to several years now, and the misery of disrupted electricity and water services.  The Gaza Strip has been likened to the largest open-air prison in the world and there is no escape with the closure of the Rafah Crossing to Egypt for the past several months.

Such a humanitarian crisis brought about by Israel’s clear act of aggression, with its intent to bring the Hamas government to its knees regardless of the untold sufferings wrought on the people of Gaza, initiated on the flimsiest of excuses and justifications, and replete with war crimes and crimes against humanity, is generating stronger international reaction compared to the last Gaza War in 2008-2009.

More countries are suspending diplomatic ties, enacting arms embargoes, and openly criticizing Israel. Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru and El Salvador have withdrawn their ambassadors from Tel Aviv while other countries have suspended free-trade talks.  For its part Spain has imposed an arms embargo.

More importantly, international public opinion is increasingly going against Israel.  Several big protest actions have taken place in the European Union, many resuming calls for consumers to boycott companies identified with or supporting Israel such as MacDonald’s, Starbucks and Hewlett-Packard. 

The Christian Science Monitor cites a mid-July poll conducted in the US by the Pew Research Center that found younger Americans “blam(ing) Israel more than the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the violence.”  Prominent public figures from among the film industry, doctors and peace and human rights advocates have also condemned the latest Israel aggression.

The International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS), a global alliance of progressive people’s organizations that has a strong membership base in the Asia-Pacific region has resounded the call of the people of Gaza for the people of the world to carry out a movement for realizing boycotts, divestment and sanctions as in the global campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa in recent history.

Israel has been able to occupy Palestine, land grab remaining Palestinian lands through the apartheid wall and expanding Jewish settlements, terrorize the people with harsh and unrelenting repressive measures, reduce Palestinians to penury by destroying their livelihoods, and at will attack Gaza and massacre the people with impunity because of the support of the Western powers especially the US and the EU. 

Only international public outrage, condemnation and the people’s version of economic sanctions will be decisive in isolating the fascist Israeli government, force it to back down, break the blockade and allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza and most importantly, uphold the right of the Palestinian people to their homeland. #

Published 11 August 2014
Business World

August 05, 2014

The sleight-of-hand budget

The SONA speech of President Benigno S. Aquino III (BSA) has been lauded as “statesmanlike” in that he did not continue his broadside against the Supreme Court over its Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) decision.  In fact he studiously avoided giving the impression that he is continuing his tendentious defense of it at every possible turn.

So is the controversy over the DAP over?  Has Malacanang seen the error of its ways and is now ready to correct them or at least take precautionary measures to prevent coming to loggerheads with the Supreme Court?  Has BSA finally realized that the public has become ever more critical and vigilant about how the national budget is being made, especially whether and how it contains hidden pork susceptible to graft and corruption, patronage politics, not to mention plain arbitrariness, misprioritization and wastage?

Despite appearances that the BSA administration is backpedalling on its intransigent position that the DAP is completely lawful, correct and beneficial to the public interest, its actual moves and countermoves prove otherwise.  This is starkly shown in the 2015 National Expenditure Program (NEP) submitted by the Executive department for legislation into the General Appropriations Act (GAA) or national budget for the next fiscal year.  

Two things stand out: one, the retention of a humongous amount of what are clearly lump sum funds under the sole discretion of the President; the other, the blatant attempt to legalize DAP-like elements already adjudged unconstitutional through the revised and expanded definition of savings.

Budget Secretary Butch Abad, when pressed by media, could not avoid acknowledging that the P501 billion worth item in the NEP called Special Purpose Funds is indeed a lump sum fund.  But once this sent alarm bells ringing about such funds’ vulnerability to abuse, the President’s men were quick to try to squelch further questioning by saying that the NEP is by and large wholly itemized and by highlighting calamity and contingency funds as the obviously justifiable lump sums in the proposed budget.  They conveniently fail to mention allocations for Government Owned and Controlled Corporations and public works and social services programs of local government units that have been implicated in some of the most malodorous anomalies and outright plunder of the people’s money in the recent past.

Former government treasurer, Prof. Liling Briones, is quite outspoken about the hundreds of billions to more than a trillion in lump sum, discretionary aka pork funds available to the BSA administration in previous GAAs.  Thus it is a wonder to her why the BSA administration persists in painting the picture of a hapless, helpless Chief Executive shorn of his DAP wonder funds.  Looking now at the NEP, we quickly observe that nothing much has changed as far as that is concerned.

With estimates of anywhere from more than 900 billion to over a trillion in lump sum funds last year, not a few have expressed the need for greater watchfulness over the budgeting process given that next year the frenzy over the 2016 elections year will have begun with politicians pressed to fatten their campaign kitty.  What more obvious and accessible source is there if not lump sum funds especially for Malacanang whose real “power over the purse” is what underpins the Executive’s influence, if not control over Congress and local government units nationwide. 

But what stands out as a blatant attempt to circumvent and flout the Court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of DAP’s main elements is the redefinition and attempted expansion of savings in the NEP. 

Sec. 67 wants to treat as savings those “portions or balances of any programmed appropriations…which have not been released or obligated as a result of…(a) Discontinuance or abandonment of the program, activity or project (P/A/P) for justifiable cause at any time during the validity of the appropriation; (b) Non-commencement of the P/A/P for which the appropriations is authorized within the first semester of FY 2015, unless the implementing agency shows that the P/A/P may still be undertaken or accomplished within FY 2016.”

This is a complete departure from the definition of savings in previous GAAs pertinent to the above changes wherein savings can only arise if there are portions of appropriations free from obligations “still available after the completion or final discontinuance or abandonment of the work for which the appropriation is authorized.”

This simply means that if a P/A/P is discontinued or abandoned for causes that only the Executive determines and at any time, the funds meant for these P/A/Ps are immediately considered “savings” and available for realignment.  We note that discontinuance is not even qualified by the word “final”. This is tantamount to the Executive department being given very wide and unrestricted latitude to set aside the GAA and choose and pick what P/A/Ps it will implement or augment.

Also, because of this revised definition of savings, failure to commence P/A/Ps is incentivized by the prospect of pooling “savings” that are thereafter left to the unhampered discretion of the Executive Department to use as it deems fit or as its biases and proclivities direct it.

The people, led by the anti-pork barrel groups, are faced with the challenge of defeating this sleight of hand about to be perpetrated by the BSA administration with the willing connivance of his subalterns in Congress.  Given that BSA controls Congress, the other recourse will be to once more challenge the new GAA in the Supreme Court as violative of the Constitution and of the Court’s rulings.

Yet there are still other avenues being pursued that hold out much promise despite being a monumental undertaking at the outset.  We mention here the People’s Initiative (PI) to abolish the pork barrel system that will be launched at a People’s Congress on 23 August in Cebu City.  The “Act to Abolish the Pork Barrel System” is an extraordinary resort to the sovereign power of the people to directly legislate laws especially those that an elitist, corruption-ridden and reactionary Congress and Executive will not countenance.  The PI has a section that prohibits amendment by any other means except another PI providing a guarantee against Congress easily overturning the Act by the mere expedient of passing a repealing law at any time.

There are those who abhor the pork barrel system but have not yet reached the point of calling for the removal from office of BSA (dubbed the Pork Barrel King by the Parliament of the Streets) either through impeachment, resignation or ouster. 

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that the overt and covert moves  of Malacanang to defend, uphold and even entrench the system of pork in government can only be counterchecked with such a powerful, if daunting, demand that epitomizes the call for accountability from the highest official of the land. #

Published in Business World
4 August 2014