They won’t take debate
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - March 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Sen. Grace Poe would rather take questions directly from the people on the ground. Sen. Sonny Angara refuses to be baited by Congressman Erin Tanada. Like the other trappings of the campaign trail that have yielded to modernization, it’s clear that debating has also lost its currency as a determinant of voters’ decisions.

Once upon a time, eloquence or oratorical skill was a key consideration in selecting Senators. I was a boy of 7 when my father won his first Senate seat in 1971. Though too young to tag along on the sorties, I recall my visits to his new workplace. I distinctly remember the cavernous Senate session hall, the people in the gallery who gawked like fight audiences around an arena, the clouds of cigarette smoke from the floor. Above all, the indelible memory of people just talking. Into microphones, each in front of a podium. Delivering speeches or simply asking each other questions across the hall. At times disputatiously; at others, in a comradely manner. 

I was proud to see my father among the speakers. But the one who spoke the most, spoke fastest and spoke best was a man in white, with a chubby face and glasses. I recognized this same man, 12 years later, still in white, face down on the tarmac, silenced forever. In death, his voice was even more clarion. But that is another story.

This was my impression of what Senatoring was all about. The title voceros, applied to lawyers and spokespersons, was equally apropos to Senators because “con voces o con palabras usan de su oficio”: with their voices or with their words, they perform their functions. It was only reinforced as I got older. The Senate was a cauldron where conviction and disbelief were thrown into the brew. The resultant mixture was a stew of ingredients in different measure. And I felt that these varying positions were best ventilated by expressing them and by defending them to come up with what was, as Goldilocks would say, “just right.” How else would we understand the recipe?

Lend us your ears. But I do not begrudge Senators like Grace and Sonny for having better things to do. They are, after all, tried and tested quantities. In the Senate and in the 2016 Presidential debates for the former; the Senate and the House for the latter. And I have a broader understanding now of what Senatoring is about. Utility to the institution, to the legislation produced and the performance of its myriad roles in national governance, can also be supplied by the craftsman who works best in committee; the proponent of unyielding probes as well as the pragmatist who yields quickly to attain otherwise elusive consensus. The affable sort who is friend to all is not necessarily more effective than the ill tempered curmudgeon. Moral codes assure that you keep your head above water at end of day but the same does not guarantee a good senator. 

Industry, a familiarity with and genuine interest in the major issues of the day, a willingness to consider the larger interest over parochial considerations and a sincere desire to serve – with traits like these, you don’t have to be the best debater to be a good senator. 

We knew our way before we lost it. Again, we are subjected to all the ugly and infuriating early campaigning. And the Comelec is helpless to police it. What challenges our faith in the Philippine electoral system? This free-for-all that accompanies every election period surely lands in the top 10. Even the OK corral had more order.

It used the be the law of the land that it was “unlawful for any person, whether or not a voter or candidate, or for any party, or association of persons, to engage in an election campaign or partisan political activity except during the campaign period.” That was Sec. 80 of the old Omnibus Election Code. 

Today, there is no such rule prohibiting electoral campaigns or partisan political activity outside the campaign period. The automated election law of 1997 required advance printing of the specialized ballots to be used by the PCOS machines. The names of all candidates would need to be printed beside the boxes to be ticked. So the deadline for filing your certificate of candidacy (COC) was advanced. But silly Congress decides to console candidates for the early declaration. 

This is the origin of the absurd provision that even if you’ve already filed your COC, you’re not considered a candidate for purposes of the early campaigning ban. In effect, there has become no such thing. The Supreme Court conferred its imprimatur on this legal fiction in Penera vs Comelec. 

Balancing the check. The descent into hell that the Penera decision spawned has provoked the Senate to re-criminalize early campaigning. It is re-checking the Court provided balance when it passed upon the legality of the new provision. Justice Bobby Abad who, with Justice Minita Chico-Nazario, dissented from the Penera majority, recalled the rationale of the early campaign ban: “historically, premature election campaigns begun even years before the election saps the resources of the candidates and their financial backers, ensuring considerable pay-back activities when the candidates are elected. Such lengthy campaigns also precipitate violence, corrupt the electorate, and divert public attention from the more vital needs of the country.”

Authoritarian who? The President seeks a dialogue with Commission on Audit and the Ombudsman so that they’re all on the same page. He has high respect for Chairman Michael Aguinaldo. It is initiatives like these that confound those who would summarily dismiss him, thanks to his harrumphs and intermittently hemorrhaging mouth. At bottom, he is a believer in transparency, accountability and consultative leadership. A closet advocate of democracy. Reminds one of Rodgers and Hammerstein, writing about King Rama IV: “the thoughtless things he’ll do, will hurt and worry you. But now and then he’ll do, something wonderful …”

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