Clean Air Act

The Post-PNoy era

A Broad Tent
A big tent?
The Million People March at Ayala called for unity in diversity, but did it achieve this goal?

The election of a genuinely pro-reform candidate like President Aquino or PNoy in 2010 happens only once in a generation. Dissatisfied with anything that falls short of their ideal, some are now calling for an end to his presidency, but others are more conscious of the fact that time is running out to enact bold reform before he steps down.

Mortality has a funny way of focusing the mind. Whether it be the end of one’s life or term of office, contemplating one’s demise allows us to transcend the present day-to-day battles, take stock of the remaining time we have left, and attend to doing the things that we want to be remembered for after we are gone.

So it goes for the budding reform movement that first catapulted President Aquino into the presidency and has now morphed into a cause to abolish the pork barrel system. The fast-approaching conclusion of PNoy’s presidency, less than three years away, and the uncertain fate of his reform program, has put into sharp focus the need to double up efforts and ensure that enough protections are in place to keep whoever succeeds him on the straight and narrow path.

Recent revelations of anomalies in the administration’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) have reminded citizens of the possibility for abuse that still exists when you combine congressional earmarks with executive privilege in the budget process. The supposed unconstitutionality of such a program has wedged supporters of the cause on the issue of whether to turn on President Aquino who takes full responsibility for authorising the DAP.

While it was easier to make that leap under the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, especially after the Hello Garci incident, when the reform movement abandoned her, the personification of evil has not yet reached the same fever pitch under President Aquino. Internecine conflict has broken out in the wake of the [email protected] rally on 4 October which attracted far fewer numbers than the August 26 Luneta rally. The warring factions are making two competing claims:

  • One side claims that the protest action was “hijacked” by anti-PNoy groups, incited by the opposition, whose senators are being investigated for fraud in relation to the original pork barrel scam. They view calls for the president to resign or be impeached as a distraction to the ongoing investigation into congressional abuse of pork.
  • The other side maintains that PNoy’s supporters are seeking to weaken or undermine their cause to protect the president from prosecution.

It is a classic case of purists vs pragmatists. The purist/idealist camp (anti-PNoy supporters) seeks nothing short of absolute adherence to its core principles of prosecuting all those involved in pork (which includes DAP), while the pragmatists/realist camp (pro-PNoy supporters) see that such adherence, although desirable is not practical, and possibly counter-productive, at this stage.

The debate has quickly descended into an uncivilised tone with pejorative name-calling serving only to weaken the overall reputation and efficacy of the movement. A silent majority consisting of pro-reform supporters are perhaps willing to suspend judgement and cut the president some slack. They probably shied away from Friday’s mass action for fear of being lumped together with anti-PNoy protesters.

This split in the reform movement was something that the [email protected] organisers, the Scrap Pork network had hoped to avoid with their pronouncements on unity prior to the rally. Now that the two camps are in open conflict with each other does not bode well for the movement. That is of course unless it is able to quickly pivot towards forming an agenda for change that goes beyond mere slogans.

The reform constituency needs to be broad enough to encompass both pro- and anti-PNoy supporters. This can be achieved by focusing on policy goals rather than personality-centred partisanship. Just as the RH campaign brought disparate groups together around a common policy theme, the reform movement needs to coalesce around a set of policies to push for as PNoy’s presidency comes to a close, and beyond.

How can we do that?

The problem faced by ordinary citizens who compete with very powerful vested interests in waging a campaign to affect public policy was first posed by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action. The book in a way tries to answer the question why special interests are better able to capture state regulators and policymakers, as well as fund slick media campaigns to influence public opinion, than ordinary citizens who outnumber them.

The fact that the benefits of collective action are shared by the public at large, while the cost is borne by a select few, gives rise to the free rider problem where people wait for the first movers to bear the cost of organising before jumping in. Special interest groups don’t suffer from this, since the incidence of costs and benefits falls on a concentrated group of players. The logic of collective action eventually results in what economists call the tragedy of the commons where policies that serve the public interest are disproportionately underrepresented.

In the face of very powerful and concentrated interests which would want to stall and roll-back the reform process, how can the diffuse, inchoate masses that comprise the reform constituency mobilise support for a reform agenda? A new book Strength in Numbers by Gunnar Trumbull which challenges Olson’s thesis might hold a clue. The following is how Jonathan Rauch from the American Enterprise Institute summarised the key insights from the book

In fact, weak, diffuse groups have a paradoxical political advantage: precisely because they are weak and diffuse, the public sees them as less self-interested and thus comparatively trustworthy. Second, Olson also underestimates the power of ideological motivation, rather than just money and concentration, to spur activism. Third, “diffuse interests can be represented without mobilization,” thanks to activism by politicians and government officials who take up their cause. (FDR started a federal pension program at a time when “retirees,” as a self-identified social class, did not yet exist. The program created the constituency, rather than the other way around.) Fourth, weak or diffuse interests can link up with concentrated groups to amplify their effectiveness, as when consumers align with exporters to oppose trade protections or when free-speech advocates join with political parties to oppose campaign-finance limits.

A number of past cases in the Philippines would in fact fit well with the Strength in Numbers hypothesis. Legislation supporting clean air, cheap medicine and reproductive health were passed in the face of stiff opposition from very powerful business and special interest groups in society. Why? Because they had a combination of factors working in their favour: a champion in Congress, a constituency rallying behind it, motivated at times by an ideology or simply altruistic motives.

David Bollier, co-editor of the book The Wealth of the Commons, suggests that the internet has significantly reduced the costs of organising common people behind collective action. The following is how Bollier put it

In our times … (t)he rise of the World Wide Web since 1994 — and since then social networking, wikis, and countless other innovations — has made it ridiculously easy for people to find each other and organize to publicly advance their shared interests. That’s one reason that the commons is so robust today – the coordination and communication barriers among people have virtually disappeared in online spaces.

The strength of the MPM/Scrap Pork network is the fact that it is seen as a neutral group, less interested in the personalities of partisan politics. Its ability to organise mass actions through social media in the middle of a work day is gold. All this infighting simply undermines that and makes it appear that there are hidden operators with their own agenda trying to sway the cause one way or another. The fact that the network has hewn strictly towards the middle between pro- and anti-PNoy activists, in their pronouncements at least, was a good outcome.

To spur this movement forward requires us to harness all the energy and ideas of its constituents towards a reform agenda. To simply chant slogans is not enough. What we need are practical policy tools that would make the scrapping of pork, the accounting of public funds, and the prosecution of the corrupt a lot easier regardless of who sits in Malacañang or the Batasan.

We can either swim against the tide or make the tide shift in our favour through structural reforms. It is not a distraction to focus the conversation on policy reforms that could be adopted over the coming years, when all these investigations and prosecutions of pork cases will unfold. As the cases of alleged corruption are investigated and cases filed, there will be cause to mount protest actions to carry them to their logical conclusions.

The problem is if we think that removing pork from the diet of congress and the president, and punishing a number of senior elected and appointed officials will solve the problem of corruption in high places, we would be seriously mistaken. A lot of off-budget transactions have taken place in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. Wily and entrepreneurial backroom operators such as Janet Napoles will always find a way of conducting shady deals when the public are looking away.

The incentive to cheat under our current system is simply too great because whoever is in power has the ability to maneuver using off-budget transactions. It is time that groups like MPM and Scrap Pork take their advocacy to a whole new level by taking advantage of the free space afforded by the digital commons to make their case for far-sighted reforms to address them. This might involve:

  • sponsoring and curating a combination of online forums where various experts put forth their ideas for policy change through discussion papers or presentations and where viewers participate by posting questions, comments and suggestions.
  • seeking champions for their cause in Congress or the administration to adopt their draft bills and proposals.
  • organising mass actions through social media during important dates when proposals are deliberated and voted on in Congress. The case of the Magna Carta of the Philippines for Internet Freedom could be used as a template to push for a number of reform measures.

Finally, if the reform constituency remains intact, and succeeds in pushing not only for administrative reforms through executive action, but political reforms through changes in law that would make it easier for reform-minded politicians to advance in our democratic system, then they will guarantee a better and brighter future for all of us as we move into the post-PNoy era.

Note: The hashtag #postPNoy has been started by the author on Twitter to foster a conversation on concrete reform proposals.  Anyone can participate in this discussion by following it and posting comments and suggestions.