data privacy

Trapo Alert! Detecting political pandering, part 7

Panderometer

Featuring Jun Magsaysay, Edward Hagedorn, Antonio Trillanes, Samson Alcantara, Ramon Montaño and Ricardo Penson.

This is the seventh part in a series on the candidates for the senate in 2013. Just a recap: I am attempting through this series to have a serious discussion of the aspirants and their political platforms (or lack thereof). These are put through what I call the pander-o-meter to determine whether the policy detail they have released so far places them in either the reformist or populist columns. The following table details the range of possible scores a candidate can get and the equivalent meaning of each reading:Introducing: the ‘Pander-o-meter’ or Trapo Scale

A reading of… …is equivalent to…

1-2

Low levels of pandering detected, generally reformist in nature

3

A mixed bag of proposals aimed at both pandering and reforming

4

Trapo alert! Approaching dangerous levels of pandering

5

Could be likened to a vote buying trapo

In part 1, I covered Juan Edgardo Angara, JrBenigno Aquino IV and Alan Peter Cayetano. In part 2, I covered Francis Escudero, Risa Hontiveros and Loren Legarda. In part 3, I covered Aquilino Pimentel III,Joseph Victor Ejercito and Juan Ponce Enrile, Jr. In part 4, I covered Gregorio HonasanErnesto Maceda and Juan Miguel Zubiri. In part 5, I coveredTeodoro Casiño, the candidates of Ang Kapatiran Party (John Carlos delos Reyes, Lito David and Mars Llasos), and the candidates of the Democratic Party of the Philippines (Bal Falcone, Christian Señeres and Greco Belgica). In part 6, I covered Grace Poe LlamanzaresEd Villanueva and Richard Gordon.

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Ramon Magsaysay, Jr (Liberal-Team PNoy)

At 74, Ramon or “Jun” Magsaysay is one of the older candidates in this year’s election. Having served in the 13th Congress as senator, he would be no stranger to the upper chamber having chaired a number of committees and contributed to if not authored a number of important laws such as the Anti-money Laundering Act, the Electronic Commerce Act and the Magna Carta for Small and Medium Enterprises.

He is also one of the few running for a seat in the upper house with a solid business background who supports innovation and the information economy, although it is ironic that his campaign does not have a website to communicate his platforms, just a scant social media presence (his Facebook account was created on 23 April and his Twitter account has 1,364 followers as at this writing). Thus, I was only able to find his platform through third party websites (like UP sa Halalan 2013) and through news articles.

Jun is pushing for:

  • a roadmap for the coconut industry,
  • a higher internet penetration rate, and
  • the creation of a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) that would boost innovation and entrepreneurial ventures in the country.

General Comments:

This is quite a full legislative agenda already. I was heartened when I read about his support for the SWF concept since I have been pushing this idea for more than two years. He assesses the risks of doing so, but he believes such risks are worth it given the potential benefits. Jun is the only candidate who has even addressed this issue. Given the ballooning of our gross international reserves as a result of remittances from Filipinos working overseas, he agrees that we need to direct some of it towards industrial development and innovation to counter the strength of the peso which is weakening our international cost competitiveness.

Among the senatorial contenders, Jun is the only one with an idea as to how to fund his proposals.  The rest just talk about spending programs, without any indication as to how their priorities would be financed. Jun does both with his endorsement of the SWF concept. Perhaps, due to his background in business and his honesty as a politician, Jun recognises that to get the economy of the Philippines heading in the right direction, livelihood programs and public infrastructure spending won’t be enough.

But he does not simply restrict himself to the promise of the information economy, Jun’s support for a coco industry roadmap shows that his views on economic development embrace both new and old economies. Again, the SWF could be used to spur the development of agro-industrial exports from coconut farming. The vision that PNoy has for the sector whose workers are the poorest in the industry could be realised by investing some SWF money in the commercialisation of export generating business ideas.

Pander-o-meter: 1 out of 5

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Edward Hagedorn (Independent)

The long-serving mayor of Puerto Princesa, Palawan is making a bid for a national post for the first time with a platform based on his experience at fostering tourism in the island through peace and order and investing in natural capital. His Facebook page contains a short video clip that captures this approach in a slogan called Turismo, Trabaho, Mismo.

In his website, there is a more detailed description of his legislative priorities. There are numerous proposals involving the promotion of sustainable farming, eco-tourism and renewable energy. He also seeks to develop a national land use policy that would govern regional development and planning. He wants to promote regional investments through fiscal incentives, regional infrastructure and regional access to healthcare services right down to the barrio level.

On the health front, Mr Hagedorn’s proposal is to allow member contributions to increase in line with one’s salary to allow for greater coverage of services and for matching contributions to be made by government. He is also seeking greater devolution of health service delivery and for the allotment of local government units to be possibly increased in order to cover this.

On the social front, he advocates tougher laws on juvenile delinquency and beggars to be spearheaded by the DSWD and the PNP. He also seeks a regional employment program to replace the conditional cash transfer program of the national government and the funding of places in private educational institutions (i.e. a voucher system) in the public provision of education. He also supports the vigorous implementation of the reproductive health bill, progressive sin taxes and the freedom of information bill.

General comments:

Mr Hagedorn’s proposals for the country seem to be quite prescriptive, based as they are on his experience in the city of Puerto Princesa. Preserving the natural, cultural and human capital of a place is quite important for attracting tourism into the area. Having a land use policy would aid in preserving the character of tourist destinations.

My worry is that some regions in the country might not gain as much from an emphasis on tourism as others. For these regions, a different engine for growth is required. Perhaps the only option is farming, forestry or mining. To a certain extent, you could convert our forests into tourist destinations. If we could upgrade our government’s capacity to manage and enforce logging restrictions, we could have sustainable tree farms of already cleared forests alongside eco-tourist trails in preserved areas. The same goes for mining since many of our mineral reserves can only be accessed and extracted through forests. Again, a land use and environmental policy would be essential for regulating this.

Creating a voucher system for private education and flexible health coverage depending on one’s income will be a drastic departure from the current set up. More details are needed to determine the practicality and desirability of the plan. Despite that, putting them on the table could lead to very interesting debates and modifications in the senate.

Pander-o-meter: 2 out of 5

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Antonio Trillanes IV (Nacionalista-Team PNoy)

Senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, the former Navy Lieutenant turned rebel spokesman, is seeking a fresh mandate to remain in his position under Team PNoy. It must be quite a change after waging his first senate bid from a prison cell and serving the first half of his term from there. During his first term, he authored a number of important bills such as the Data Privacy Act and the Archipelagic Baseline Law.

He was the principal author of the Magna Carta for the Poor which was vetoed by the president due to insufficient funds. In his second term, he wants to enact a freedom of information law, amend the cybercrime act and extend e-procurement to all government agencies.

General comments:

Mr Trillanes took a while but his Magna Carta for the Poor bill has demonstrated his populist leanings. The law was vetoed by President Aquino for being prohibitively costly. As I have mentioned before, creating rights is one thing, but enforcing them is another. Enacting legislation that provides social and economic entitlements beyond the capacity of government and society to provide for is simply irresponsible.

I do not know what is worse: being the author of such a blatantly populist measure or voting for it. The fact that such a law reached the desk of the president for signature shows just how populist both houses of congress are. The fact that they were willing to follow the mad piper in pandering to the masses by passing his proposal is testament to the seductive appeal of going down the populist path. Fortunately, the president made the pragmatic decision and vetoed the bill on the grounds that he could not enforce it.

On the other hand, when it came to a measure that provided reproductive health rights which the government could afford and which would provide fiscal dividends down the track due to lower population growth, Senator Trillanes decided to vote against it. He may have enacted a number of good laws and his legislative agenda contains a few more good ones, but on the whole the senator’s performance has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Pander-o-meter: 3 out of 5.

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Samson Alcantara (Social Justice Party)

The sole candidate for his party and law professor is running to bring about a more equitable society, although it is not clear how he intends to do this. The same goes for his advocacy for quality education and the establishment of a code for teachers and students.

This is symptomatic of taking a rights based approach to social and economic legislation. As I have said previously, many of our legislators think that they can legislate their way into a utopian society without considering the cost. Although he takes a high brow approach and couches the need to build a more egalitarian society on the constitution, it is very hard to see how his proposal for a people’s initiative to strengthen democracy will bring about the necessary social and economic transformation.

Essentially, creating a freer, more open and contestable political and economic system won’t be achieved in one go. Alcantara’s concept of social justice needs to be teased out further. He hasn’t really enunciated a coherent strategy for addressing inequity in our society. For someone who claims that the major political parties are not providing us anything of substance, he falls into the same category by his policy omissions.  I am tempted here to rank him a 5 out of 5 in the pander-o-meter because his platform seems hollow, but I am willing to be a bit more lenient in awarding a mark.

Pander-o-meter: 4 out of 5

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Ramon Montaño (Independent)

This retired general is seeking to represent the veterans’ and retired soldiers’ interests in the senate and to decouple the police force from political interference. Other than that, it is not clear what he represents. The problem with single issue candidates is that they seem to represent a very limited view of the world. Electing someone to the senate should ideally be based on a more substantive set of policies and issues.

Pander-o-meter: 3.5 out of 5

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Ricardo Penson (Independent)

This businessman is running to ban political dynasties since the case he filed with the Supreme Court has not prospered so far. As this has become a political hot button issue given the composition of the senate slates of major parties. It has forced some concerned citizens to run simply to put the issue on the table. He has also come out in support of progressive causes like reproductive health and divorce. What he lacks is an economic agenda.

Pander-o-meter: 2.75 out of 5

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We are nearing the end of this series. The penultimate instalment will cover Nancy Binay, Tingting Cojuangco, Jamby Madrigal, Mitos Magsaysay and Cynthia Villar. This will be followed with a conclusion which will sum up all the findings in the series.

FOI in Action

As a public servant in Australia, I have personally seen how the Freedom of Information operates in the real world.

In the department where I used to work, a lot of commercial feasibility studies were processed and kept “in confidence” due to the sensitive nature of such deals. A colleague of mine used to handle FOI requests a lot. He would sometimes show me the redacted documents he would photocopy and send back in response to them. Sometimes nearly the entire text of the document would be blocked out due to the private or confidential nature of its contents, and the fact that it was not necessary to know these details to understand the measures being considered.

We were asked to operate by a code of ethics which mandated us to treat such confidential information with utmost care. We were told to maintain correspondences including electronic mail whether internal or external to our department that might be subject of an FOI request. This created disk space issues for us. We had to exercise discretion in determining if these correspondences were important and sensitive enough to require archiving.

Many of the requests would come from the media, but some would come from ordinary citizens. “Joe Blogs” we would call them. There have been a number of instances recently that demonstrate how FOI requests can influence public debate over contentious issues of the day. One request in particular revealed the Federal government’s preparedness (or lack thereof) in dealing with refugees arriving by boat and the lack of appropriate resources deployed to manage the centers for holding them while their applications for asylum were processed.

In a world where the technology exists for the state or as in the case of the News of the World large multinational corporations to spy on its citizens or persons of interest, the FOI is a good tool to make the access of information less asymmetric. Several things are worth noting with regard to this right to information though.

First is that any Freedom of Information Act has to be followed by or work alongside a Privacy Act. As of now, the Philippines neither has one nor the other. There are certain pieces of legislation that protect the privacy of rape victims and of children who are subject to the judicial system or maintain bank secrecy of depositors even from the government (which in my view needs to be lifted for tax purposes). There is also a bill on data privacy that has been flagged as a priority by the president. Nothing other than a very general clause in the constitution however enshrines the rights of citizens to maintain their privacy.

In the US, the FOI was initially a tool for citizens to gain access to their own personal records. In Australia as in the US, an FOI request can be declined if it would lead to an unreasonable disclosure of someone else’s personal information, medical records for instance. These must be obtained with the consent of the individual. Section 8 clause c provides an exception to the FOI when,

the information pertains to the personal information of a third party natural person, unless it forms part of a public record, or the third party is or was an official of a government agency and the information relates to his or her public function.

Rather than dealing with the issue of privacy piecemeal through disparate contexts, there should be a law that applies more broadly this right and what it entails. Furthermore, government departments and businesses in general must be required to have policies covering confidentiality. A privacy act would simply make confidentiality the default setting but allow clients to waive their rights or give permission for their details to be shared under certain conditions.

Second, just as the right to privacy is not absolute, the right to information is not absolute either. The state can surveil or search a private citizen’s residence or belongings under certain provisions. Citizens should also be granted access to information subject to certain caveats as well. None of these rights to request or deny information should be abused however. Judicial review of cases is made possible by the draft bill to ensure that this is the case. An information commission would also help set the proper guidelines as in the case of Australia.

Third, aside from preserving the confidentiality of third party or commercially sensitive information, the FOI bill also exempts the state from disclosing information when there is a national security risk or commercial risk involved (as in foreign negotiations), when it involves matters that are sub judice or when it involves anything obtained by Congress in executive session.

This list should also be expanded to include all deliberations undertaken by Cabinet. In the Westminster system, cabinet, not the prime minister, makes executive decisions. This makes policy making a collegial process. When cabinet is deliberating on an issue, its members should be free to express their views without fear of reprisal. This is sometimes referred to as the Chatham House Rule. In the Australian context, cabinet deliberations are kept confidential for a period of time. Although the presidential system works differently, the same principle can be applied.

The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd broke his silence recently and exposed the individual views of those within his “kitchen cabinet” on an emissions trading scheme that partially led to his downfall prior to the last election. His statement implied that his successor, the current PM Julia Gillard did not believe in the measure at the time it was considered. This has put her in an awkward position, as she tries to sell a similar scheme to a skeptical audience, something that the confidentiality of Cabinet is meant to shield its members from.

Returning to my original point about seeing the FOI in action, I have to say that in practice, it hardly interferes with the way we conduct business in the public sector, which should provide reassurance to those that fear it being enacted. As someone who works “on the other side of the fence” I would still have to endorse the Freedom of Information particularly because it does aid in making government more transparent.

Sometimes, bureaucrats have their hands tied behind their backs and are unable to speak out or question openly the policies of their political masters. It helps sometimes to have citizens doing their part, advocating changes and seeking clarification on measures undertaken to support a given policy agenda. Towards that end, the FOI in practice has been a very helpful tool.

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