CARPeR

Spokes in the Wheels of Justice

Towards a Genuine Agenda for a Just Society

As the world of the blogosphere, twitterverse and mainstream media soak up as much as it can from the Corona impeachment trial, delving into the subtle elements of the rules of court, rules of evidence and so, on, one wonders about the long-standing issues related to injustice and impunity that slip below the radar as far as the public policy agenda is concerned.

The wheels of justice revved up so expeditiously in the lead up to the impeachment of Corona, but they grind ever so slowly in the case of so many others. To wit, I now turn the spotlight on them in the form of a Top 5 ranking. I ask the question, what is happening to these “five spokes” in the “wheels of justice” given the fact that P-Noy’s administration has placed “judicial reform” at the top of its agenda. I highlight the status of the issues involved, some history, current developments and provide some justification for including them in the top five list. Well, without further ado, here they are:

5. Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill.

The president sent to Congress his version of the bill on Thursday, February 2, 2012. It took at least eighteen months for his government to come up with its own version of the proposed law. At first, the Palace was rather reticent about endorsing any version of the FOI bill as urgent when it hammered out its legislative agenda. Finally, it relented after several months of mounting public pressure from concerned citizens on the issue.

Many elements of the law remain contentious which means that you can expect the debate in Congress to be fierce. The House of Representatives will need to reconcile the different versions of the bill. The question is whether the Senate will have time to deliberate on it given the proceedings currently underway there.

I include this in the Top 5 Spokes of the Wheels of Justice because an FOI law would allow for greater transparency. Greater transparency would be required in ensuring that government disclose to the public what it knows about certain issues that impact on people’s lives, safety and well-being.

This is just an extension of the freedom of the press, something that was uppermost in the mind of P-Noy’s father when he languished in prison and in exile and struggled to let the world know about his story. The FOI Bill needs to have safeguards, but the risks of greater accountability should not detract from the overall vision of having a more accountable, transparent, and just society.

4. Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

After vacillating over whether to certify as urgent any of the reproductive health bills in Congress, the president finally gave his seal of approval by proposing his own version of the RH bill. The clock ran out last year though as Congress went into recess. The problem will be enacting the bill so close to an election year when the anti-RH adherents will be fired-up to go against legislators who vote in favour of it.

The longer the impeachment trial drags on, the greater the likelihood that the RH bill will not pass, considering where we are in our political/electoral cycle.

The reason why reproductive health comprises a spoke on the wheel of justice is that it directly affects the future health and well-being of at least half the population, and it indirectly affects every newborn child. Those who study women’s issues will tell you that the way women’s rights are treated in society is a proxy for how just and tolerant society is more broadly.

The question is will we have to wait until after the 2013 elections before this bill get passed?

3. Coco levy funds

If the FOI Bill is a carryover issue from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency, and the RH Bill goes all the way back to Fidel Valdez Ramos’, the disposition of the coco levy funds goes all the way back to Ferdinand Edralin Marcos’. The coco levy fund was administered by P-Noy’s uncle, Danding Cojuangco. The current Senate president had a hand in it too.

The Supreme Court recently ruled and affirmed the Sandiganbayan antigraft court’s decision which awarded to the government close to a quarter of the shares of San Miguel Corporation that Mr Cojuangco controls. It said that the funds should be used only to benefit the farmers who had contributed to the levy after it was mandated by Mr Marcos.

This prompted a farmer’s party-list organization to press for the president’s endorsement to the house of a bill that would facilitate the return of the fund to the farmers. The said shares in San Miguel are estimated to be as high as one hundred and fifty billion pesos (Php150 Billion) presently. If spread over five years, the annual disbursement could exceed the budget for the conditional cash transfers.

This is definitely a spoke in the wheel of justice since coconut farmers occupy the lowest rung in the ladder (sorry for getting my metaphors mixed up) in the agricultural sector. They constitute the poorest of the poor. While rice farmers continue to receive billions in subsidy from the grains program each year, no such assistance is extended to coconut farmers. Yet, the biggest growth in agricultural productivity can be had if this fund were used to assist them in making their fields more productive by introducing other crops.

With the appointment of a former aide of Mr Cojuangco to the cabinet, one can be certain that the views of the old man will be represented at the table when Cabinet decides on the issue. The longer it takes for such an anomaly to be corrected (the farmers have already waited a quarter of a century), the bigger the insult suffered by those who deserve just compensation. It is their money after all.

2. Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extensions (CARPER)

This problem goes back so long, I will not even bother to try to “date” it. The Huk rebellion in the 1950s following the war led to the election of President Ramon Magsaysay who promised to institute social reforms. What was applied though were band aid solutions. His popularity among the people which improved social cohesion and public trust in government and the availability of land in Mindanao made it possible to skirt the issue of land reform.

CARPER is just the last in a long succession of policies aimed at solving the land issue. Its immediate predecessor CARP was enacted by the late-Corazon Cojuangco Aquino’s presidency. The program was given a new lease on life at the end of GMA’s term. The current president promised to complete its implementation including resolving the Hacienda Luisita issue before stepping down in 2106. The Hacienda Luisita issue dates back to the time of Ramon Magsaysay when the government bankrolled its acquisition by the Cojuangcos by guaranteeing loans to P-Noy’s grandfather Jose Cojuangco.

Aside from the vexed issue of land distribution under CARPER, there is currently the issue of land grabbing allegedly taking place. An international fact-finding team recently investigated reports involving land covering three towns of San Mariano, Ilagan and Benito Soliven. At the heart of the problem lies Green Future Innovations, Inc which plans to put up a bio-ethanol plant that will cost $120 million. It was alleged that more than a thousand farmers and indigenous people were displaced by the project. The area involved is 2,200 hectares. The infusion of capital by a Japanese partner into the project was hailed as one of the positive developments coming out of the president’s trip to Japan last year.

Again, these are mere allegations at this point, but they are disconcerting given the context. They raise the question of whether the government has a land use policy in mind and how it plans to handle the question of foreign ownership of land. This is a sleeper issue. The same thing could conceivably be duplicated by China in its search for energy resources. At the root of this problem is the question of property rights. How are they defined and protected? What measures will the government take to ensure that land is used productively to benefit our national interests.

1. Compensation for Martial Law victims

I place this on top of the agenda. Why? Because in the others (save perhaps for the RH Bill and the case of Hacienda Luisita), people were deprived of either their property or right to information. Here, they were deprived of their lives and their liberty. The arbitrary use of police powers by the state to abuse its people, the very citizens whose rights they are meant to protect, well, no graver injustice can be said to occur.

Yet,  a quarter of a century has passed, and we are still awaiting some final closure to this issue. Even after the case was won securing money from the Marcoses to compensate the 7,500 victims, the orderly distribution of ten billion pesos worth of those funds is yet to be framed by Congress. A bill in the House has already made its way through the appropriations committee as of February 7, 2012. This paves the way for deliberations on the floor. Whether or not there will be enough time to hammer out the bill and enact it this year is another question. In March last year, victims started to receive compensation in the form of a $7.5 million award from a US court.

After waiting so long, the end is finally in sight. Each year, a few of the original surviving victims pass away without seeing their claims recognized. Honoring them and their loved ones through compensation would be the best way to bring closure to this dark chapter in our nation’s history.

Conclusion

In pursuing justice, the Palace has chosen to focus on the injustices that occurred during the last five years of the Arroyo presidency by going after her henchmen  whom she had left behind entrenched in certain sensitive positions. Last year saw a growing body count of individuals tied to the former regime. The latest target, the chief justice, is currently occupying the nation’s attention with live coverage of his courtroom drama unfolding daily.

Meanwhile, there are decades’ old injustices perpetrated by past regimes that remain unresolved. Indeed, if the Palace had pursued these cases with as much vigour and swiftness that it demonstrated when it filed the impeachment complaint against the chief justice, then perhaps its victims would be able to heave a heavy collective sigh of relief. The wheels of justice they say grind slowly. Justice delayed is justice denied. Let it not be said that this government turned its back on “the least of our brethren” whom it claims to be fighting for.

That Vision Thing Redux: Wang-Wang Culture

In tackling wang-wang culture, has the president left something big out?

The president in his new found role as Sociologist in Chief spoke at his second State of the Nation Address about his vision for a nation free of what he described as a culture of wang-wang (blaring sirens symbolic of entitlement and abuse of privilege). His use of vernacular terms since his inaugural address in getting his message across has won him praise from even handed critics all around.

Those familiar with the business of vision building tell us that leaders should be adept at crafting a story or narrative that creates a sense of shared meaning and purpose for their followers. In this case, PNoy was delivering the “red meat” to his core constituents, those that saw in him the moral authority to bring about change to the culture of impunity that prevailed under the former dispensation.

Having recommitted his government to that cause, PNoy entreated his listeners to give him and the government he leads a pat on the proverbial back, to acknowledge its endeavors at fulfilling this corporate dream. That already seems to be the case. In fact as Mahar Mangahas points out, PNoy’s administration is the most popular one since public polling began (the distinction to be made is that this applies to his government as opposed to his person which is receiving the same treatment from the public as presidents past).

While the president’s speech was rightly praised by some for its lofty rhetoric, it has by the same token been criticized for being short on actual policy substance or consistency. When I say “some”, I mean respected commentators like economist Solita Monsod, sociologist Randy David and businessman Roberto De Ocampo to name a few.

Monsod criticized PNoy for failing to at least mention in passing his roadmap for delivering his vision, the Philippine Development Plan and for perhaps unwittingly committing intellectual dishonesty with leaps of logic and faulty use of statistics in attributing many positive developments to his good government agenda.

David goes even further and questions the roadmap itself for following the same orthodoxies and applying new buzzwords such as “inclusive growth” as a mantra without even a slight attempt to tweak these orthodoxies given their dismal record. The absence of the PDP in the president’s speech according to Monsod belies a view either on the part of the president or his men that it will have any impact on our development.

Indeed while the PDP projects a growth rate of 7-8% for the country in the next five years, the actual budget planning follows a lower set of growth assumptions of 5-6% in forecasting its revenue and spending plans. This exposes the roadmap as an aspirational one, where the budget figures show the real picture.

The need for tweaking

A strange quarter to find a critique against the business community came from one of its own in the person of De Ocampo who picked up the cudgels for competition policy given the doubling of locals in the Forbes billionaire club and the risk that such powerful business interests could swamp any attempt by this government to create a level playing field, citing the PPP program as one potential fatality.

If you look at why the government is unable to shore up its finances, it is largely because self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals and large dominant family-based corporations have successfully avoided paying their fair share of taxes. In a previous post, I cited the figures of the BIR and a study performed by finance economist Renato Reside that showed that the combined losses from non-tax compliance and abuse of fiscal incentives as well as watered down sin taxes could easily close the budget deficit of 286 billion this year.

Having trained his guns on the wang-wang mentality in government, particularly at his predecessor who according to Mangahas led the most unpopular government since public polling records were kept, the president went a little too easy on the well-heeled classes when he identified a glaring inaccuracy in their collective tax payments.

In fact this follows his performance at the Makati Business Club while he was still running for the highest office when he vowed to avoid raising taxes. The president appealed to them at his SONA however to take his honest attempts at creating public faith in government as an assurance that their tax payments would be used properly which he hoped would lead them to be more forthcoming in declaring their taxable incomes.

The problem may not lie just in appealing to a sense of common values. It might actually require in De Ocampo’s words “structural adjustments” a fancy word for fundamental changes in policy and approach. For example, the businesses that now avail of incentives from the BOI and PEZA while failing to follow-through on their investment commitments need to have their tax privileges stripped from them.

Tighter policies and enforcement means renovating our economic bureaucracy. A lack of teeth in enforcing the terms of fiscal incentives led to the failure of the import-substitution industrial policies of the 1950s and 60s. Just as an aside, my father who was in the banking industry in those days would later recount to me how he would often see the head of one bank bringing in sacks full of money after auctioning the import licenses issued by the Central Bank to supposed importers of capital goods meant for industrial production. It went instead to importers of finished goods who made a killing by avoiding tariffs on those items.

Today, the same sort of things is undermining our export promotion strategy where supposed exporters in our business parks and economic zones are able to avoid paying taxes, customs and duties while at the same time selling up to 50% of their output to the domestic market. This is outrageous because it creates an unfair advantage for them against smaller and medium sized competitors.

The real righteous road

Instead of taking a half measure by targeting abuse of authority in government alone, the president needs to focus as well on rent-seeking by private interests. Indeed if you stacked up all the alleged stolen wealth uncovered in the last twenty years, this would not hold a flame next to the amount of rents the business elite have been able to extract from the state during that time. Both are two sides of the coin, except that the latter form of wang-wang is legal, while the former is illegal.

At the risk of being lumped together with the “move on” crowd, I have to say that if the president wants to eliminate wang-wang culture in its entirety, he needs to broaden his vision and take the full-measure of targeting this culture wherever it may reside, be it in the corridors of power or the board rooms of our country’s business elite.

This is not about being forgetful of the sins of his predecessors; it is about being mindful that there are even larger sins being committed by powerful interests that are going on unnoticed. These same interests are able to switch allegiances with the changing tide of public opinion in the political arena.

It is easy to flog a dead horse. It is harder to go after the more prevalent and persistent forces that are alive and kicking. The president needs to take his carefully crafted vision of a country rid of wang-wang culture and turn it into a more comprehensive strategy. He will obviously need to take a balanced and considered approach as he doesn’t want to spook the horses so to speak.

The very essence of the social contract or grand bargain is to maintain the sources of growth, but to allow the more productive sectors to contribute an increasing portion of the proceeds of that growth to help the underclasses who lose out of the growth for whatever reason.

Walking the walk

Talking the talk is one thing, but if he wants to walk the walk, he might have to start with his own family interests. The Hacienda Luisita case could turn into a powerful device for demonstrating his commitment to the righteous path if the government is successful in fulfilling the true letter and spirit of the CARPeR law which would mean distributing land titles to the tillers of the Cojuangco estate. This would set PNoy apart as a leader who remained true to his word.

What would bolster his case even more is if he gets rid of his style of dealing with his KKK (classmates, friends and cronies) and instituted a true meritocracy in his team. Finally, he needs to strengthen the economic bureaucracy by instituting reforms in the way it is staffed and resourced.

A developmental state requires lead agencies that are engaged with but at the same time insulated from the influence of powerful business interests to prevent them from abusing the system. It is one thing to name and shame a group of delinquent taxpayers or to announce a policy of monitoring investment commitments, but the agencies concerned need to have sufficient resources to go out and conduct thorough audits on their clients.

A change in the wang-wang culture in all its shapes and forms requires not only a revamping of our moral and spiritual furniture as a nation, it will require a fundamental renovation of our economic strategy and bureaucracy. The president can leverage the cult of his personality to push for solid long-lasting reforms in this regard. That is if he would only recognize where the true wang-wang culture resides.

Revisit the original series: That Vision Thing starting here.