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Opinion

Damage control

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

At a drug store on Nov. 1 the idle talk among the pharmacists was about President Aquino’s address to the nation on the night of Oct. 30.

They knew it was something about the pork barrel but wondered exactly what it was about, even if the speech was delivered entirely in Filipino.

So the message, it seems, got muddled – to borrow a favorite word in the speech. And critics gleefully said it was in fact P-Noy who was muddling the issue by attempting to divert public criticism of his own pork barrel.

To be fair, the budget process and discretionary funds are complicated issues that are not easily explained in a speech of a few minutes, especially if the theme is who misused people’s money.

Malacañang is clearly not pleased that the President’s Disbursement Acceleration Program has been dragged into the congressional pork barrel mess, and that public attention has shifted from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to the DAP.

He has never misused DAP funds, P-Noy explained. He added that in fact DAP disbursements, as the name of the pump-priming program implies, contributed to positive economic growth figures under his watch.

“We’re not the same,’ P-Noy told those accused of misusing PDAF. “I did not steal.”

Maybe so, but what about those around him? He knows critics are saying that DAP stands for Drilon, Abad and P-Noy – a reference to Liberal Party stalwarts Franklin Drilon, now Senate president, and Butch Abad, who is accused of using his Cabinet post to benefit his wife the congresswoman representing their bucolic home province of Batanes.

What P-Noy is missing, or refuses to acknowledge, is that his opponents have succeeded in dragging his discretionary funds, and not just DAP, into the “pork” muck, because people believe his allies have also used their discretion over public funds for personal benefit. People are asking how much P-Noy knows, and whether he is looking the other way in the face of apparent wrongdoing. People believe pork barrel misuse cuts through political alliances and the nation is seeing selective persecution.

What was missing from P-Noy’s speech was a heartfelt promise to go even after anyone in his camp who might have betrayed public trust.

Midway through his six-year term, it’s inevitable that at least some of his allies would be found to have strayed from the straight path or daang matuwid.

P-Noy has always been protective of his friends, as if their misbehavior would be seen as his own or would reflect badly on his leadership. This may be true, but he has to choose between that perception and the suspicion that he is coddling wrongdoing. Those who commit acts of omission are just as guilty.

*   *   *

The Oct. 30 speech – broadcast too late for the early evening news – was part of the Palace attempt at damage control as the furor over DAP and PDAF was seen to have dragged down P-Noy’s ratings.

It came on the heels of the noticeable takeover by Sonny Coloma as main Palace spokesman. The hiss from the snake pit is that the Palace communications team was being blamed for failing to counter the counterattack by those accused of PDAF misuse.

The principal casualty of that counter-attack, also called Jinggoy’s revenge, is P-Noy – his DAP, contingency funds and performance ratings.

While a President who will not seek re-election can afford not to engage in popularity games, a high rating makes it easier, in the country’s political milieu, for a chief executive to bend even opponents to his will and push his legislative agenda.

*   *   *

Considering the enormous amount of red tape and politicking involved in fund disbursements, it makes sense to give someone in government wide discretion to release public funds ASAP during emergencies and other contingencies. That someone will have to be the chief executive.

The rationale behind the DAP can also be defended as an answer to the risk aversion that characterized the performance of many agencies in the early years of P-Noy’s administration.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, however, successfully managed to inject mistrust of DAP fund utilization in his counter-attack.

Untangling the issue from the PDAF mess is a challenge when public trust of many people in government is at a low point.

The Palace, however, still seems optimistic. After holding its breath and waiting to see the impact of P-Noy’s speech, the administration will be following through by taking the issue to the grassroots.

This means P-Noy going on provincial sorties to basically repeat what he said in his address to the nation. Critics are already saying that DAP fund releases would be announced in the sorties, ostensibly to bring home the point of the program’s usefulness for the masses.

And because it was reported that P-Noy would be traveling with Mar Roxas in tow, the President is now being accused of embarking on an early campaign for his presumptive successor in 2016. P-Noy’s handlers should hope there would be no blowback.

On top of this speculation is the criticism that P-Noy’s Oct. 30 speech was meant to influence Supreme Court deliberations on several petitions seeking to scrap the DAP.

The attempt to explain presidential discretion over public funds is fine, but a good way to return attention to pork barrel fund misuse is by dispelling perceptions of selective persecution.

P-Noy must show that this is truly about thievery and not just politics as usual.

 

ABAD AND P-NOY

BUTCH ABAD

DAP

DISBURSEMENT ACCELERATION PROGRAM

DRILON

FUNDS

JINGGOY ESTRADA

NOY

P-NOY

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