Another anti-corruption campaign

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2020 - 12:00am

With much fanfare, President Duterte declared that he will devote his last years in office fighting corruption. To this end, he created a mega task force, led by the Department of Justice, to rid government of grafters. He then ordered the DOJ to immediately investigate all allegations of corruption and even offered rewards to anyone able to provide tips on government scams.

We’ve heard this all before. In his first month in office, I distinctly recall the President saying that he will not tolerate “even a whiff of corruption” from government employees. He said that the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and three police generals involved in the drug trade would be the first to be investigated.

We waited four years and not a single high-level executive from the BIR, BOC or the military have been investigated, let alone prosecuted. In fact, corruption is at an all-time high with brazen rackets uncovered like the multi-billion PhilHealth scam, the P8.1-billion barangay health station rip-off of the DOH, the “pastillias” scandal of the Bureau of Immigration, among countless others.

Malacañang’s new anti-corruption rhetoric carries little credibility. We already know the drill. To show that the anti-corruption drive is working, a wave of arrests will take place, all of low-level bureaucrats. Friends and allies will be absolved and given graceful exits, just like PhilHeath’s CEO, Ricardo Morales. Shady officials will be defended by the President himself, as he did for DOH Secretary Francisco Duque.

The President recently called for an investigation of DPWH officers. Indeed, the DPWH is among the most corrupt departments today. I am privy to a case where both the technical plans and financing for a flyover on C-5 were approved during PNoy’s time. Construction should have started years ago but the folks at the DPWH are stalling the project until such time as its “preferred” contractor is awarded the contract. The project remains in limbo and motorists continue to suffer through traffic in that area.

Closer to our neighborhoods, our people may not be aware but the thousands of tarpaulin and electronic billboards that visually pollute our streets are in direct violation of the national building code. The majority defy size, placement and construction standards, thus making them safety risks. Worse, they clutter our roads and degrade the aesthetics of our cities. They are hazardous visual trash, plain and simple, and the DPWH allows it. As the agency mandated to enforce the building code, the DPWH is said to work in cahoots with LGUs to issue one permit after another in wanton disregard of the law. Many believe that DPWH officials are made to look the other way in exchange for “handsome incentives” from outdoor advertising agencies.

Let’s not hold our breath for genuine reforms at the DPWH. The President has already absolved Secretary Mark Villar, even praised him for his work. How the head of a corrupt agency can be declared free from responsibility and immune from delegated authority is beyond me. But in this administration, friends and allies are accorded special privileges.

At least the President has been consistent in his attacks against unfriendly oligarchs. While the attacks are justified at some level, we should not forget that oligarchs and their conglomerates provide millions of jobs for our countrymen. They invest in industries, contribute to national productivity and pay billions in taxes.

The bigger grafters are certain members of Congress. They pay a pittance in taxes and employ but a handful, but wield their power to divert chunks of the national budget to their pork barrel. Some prostitute themselves by accepting “retainers” from private enterprises in exchange for being their attack dogs or defenders in the House, even if doing so goes against public interest.

More than oligarchs, these dubious congressmen are the real coffer raiders. Malacañang should train its guns at them if it is indeed serious in curbing graft.

The public cannot be blamed for rolling their eyes on Malacañang’s new anti-corruption zarzuela. Although we would like to believe that it is a sincere initiative, its actions in the past tell us otherwise. We hope to be proven wrong.

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Our economic managers have done a fairly good job until the pandemic struck. Although reforms towards making our environment more conducive to manufacturing and attractive to investors have been slower than we would like, they have nonetheless managed to eke out GDP growth of 6.4 percent, on average, in the last four years. Inflation was tamed, debt levels were controlled, government revenues were up and poverty rates were declining.

But the economic team seems to have lost its way during the pandemic. In the early days of the ECQ, the Department of Finance (DOF) announced that the economy could still grow by .08 percent. A month later, it adjusted its forecast to -3.4 percent. In September, it adjusted its prognosis yet again to -4.5 to -6.6 percent. The frequent adjustments (miscalculations) suggest a lack of grasp of the situation, however volatile it may be.

In its recent report, the IMF predicted that the Philippine economy will likely contract by 8.3 percent this year. Following the 11.5 percent shrinkage of the economy in the third quarter, I tend to believe the IMF’s prognosis rather than that of government. The Philippines will be the worst performer in ASEAN and among the worst in the world.

Last May, the DOF and NEDA assured the public that the economy was poised to rebound sharply in the third quarter on the back of aggressive infrastructure spending and the pump-priming effects of the stimulus fund.

Well, the Department of Budget and Management just announced that infrastructure spending plunged by 33 percent in the third quarter and 16.5 percent year-to-date. Another miscalculation.

As for the stimulus fund, the DOF had appropriated the smallest stimulus package in the region at only 6.75 percent of GDP compared to Vietnam at 10 percent, Indonesia at 18 percent, Malaysia at 22 percent and Singapore at 26 percent. The DOF’s hesitation to increase the stimulus package stems from its aversion to acquire more debt. Doing so may lower our credit rating score and the last thing this administration wants is to end its term with a credit ranking lower than what it inherited.

With infrastructure works struggling to ramp up and a pittance of a stimulus fund, it looks like our recovery will be the slowest in ASEAN. Even BSP Governor Ben Diokono admits that it will take us two years for the economy to approximate 2019 levels. Let’s hope our economic team gets its act together soon.

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Email: Follow him on Twitter @aj_masigan

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