David Cameron

London Burning

No matter how hard he tries, David Cameron’s attempts to evade responsibility not just for the conditions that may have caused or contributed to the eruption of riots in London, but also the inadequacy of the response to it, it is becoming apparent that not only politicians, but the public at large are losing faith with his reforms and the Big Society it promises.

Cameron of course, beset by calls from the Labor Opposition to reconsider cuts to the police budget laid the blame on parents and the so-called broken society. The rioting was criminality run wild, not a form of political protest against an unjust social order. The police response was slow and tactically wrong, he intoned during parliamentary debates.

Unfortunately for him, the police did not take too kindly to this characterization of events, and the public appear to back them instead of the political leaders. The seeming disconnection of the politicians who were on holiday, the PM in Tuscany, his deputy in France and the London Lord Mayor Boris Johnson in the United States, when the burning of London raged surely did not help build credibility for them.

In this situation, the importance not only of empathy but also a desire to ease suffering on the part of ordinary citizens could have gone a long way.

A Clear but Erroneous Message

In his second state of the nation address, President Aquino traded his old nuanced style in favor of a crisper, cleaner form of delivery, but was it accurate?

It was a speech aimed at the public rather than the pundits. In the past, when seeking to convey his mastery of a subject, Pres Aquino or PNoy would often get lost in the detail of the topic at hand. Whether it was in dealing with the security issues after the January bomb blast or whether it had to do with the specifics of his budget.

Not this time. It was not that his speech was short on specifics. In his nearly hour-long address, the president covered everything from our recent credit upgrades to the US State Department’s downgrading of us in their watchlist of countries involved in human-trafficking, from light monorail to mosquito larvae and coconut coils.

What distinguishes this speech from previous ones is the unifying theme that threaded the whole piece, which was the narrative concerning his crusade against corruption. The appropriately coined term “wang-wang mentality” (so called for the unauthorized use of wang-wangs or sirens symbolic of the sense of entitlement by the powerful enclaves of society) was used as a rhetorical device to sharpen the focus of his theme.

The president spoke of progress in this effort yielding tangible benefits to our economy. He noted the rise of stock prices, the reduction of our rice imports, the decline of poverty and the growth of employment. He attributed these developments to the changes he has made in the running of state agencies from the highy impervious public works department to the grandiosely caffeinated Philippine gaming corporation where he claimed wasteful spending was brought to heel.

Inconvenient Truths

Some analysts have pointed out that the improvement of rice production that led to a lower demand for imports came more as a result of better weather conditions than anything else, and that the reduction of poverty in April came after a jump in January. To this I might add, that the growth in employment is simply unremarkable given the past ten years, and that even with a slight decline in unemployment, the twin problems of high underemployment and low productivity (a result of lesser jobs being created in manufacturing) still prevails.

These of course are the nuances that I said were left out of the equation. These facts were conveniently swept away because they did not fit into the overarching narrative arc of the president’s speech, nor did it fit in with the upbeat “vibe” that he was trying to project.

If we look at the substance and purpose of the speech, which is supposedly the setting of the president’s legislative priorities, we find that in a speech of 5,989 words, the president devoted 116 of them to his proposed measures. That is about 1.9% of the text. He went through his proposals so quickly, that he even failed to give a proper justification for them or a rationale for how these priorities fit within his broad agenda.

No apologies

In a manner of speaking, this was a “no apologies” speech. The president did not report on the state of his much vaunted PPPs or public private partnerships which was the centerpiece of his first SONA, nor did he ask Congress to pursue legislation that would improve its implementation.

After pointing out that

(a)ccording to the BIR, we have around 1.7 million self-employed and professional taxpayers: lawyers, doctors, businessmen who paid a total of 9.8 billion pesos in 2010. This means that each of them paid only an average of 5,783 pesos in income tax—and if this is true, then they each must have earned only 8,500 pesos a month, which is below the minimum wage. I find this hard to believe

he then failed to announce any reforms that would ensure a greater contribution of these privileged few to the national treasury in keeping with his no new taxes pledge which the Movement for Good Governance scored him poorly for.

The president also made no apologies for the slowdown of the economy in the first quarter of the year. Instead, he stuck to his narrative contrasting his righteous way with that of his predecessor. Buoyed by the recent string of whistle-blowers and his new-found ally in the newly designated Ombudsman, he did not hesitate to talk down the opposition or to entreat everyone to praise the “good deeds” of his government.

The president adeptly avoided confrontation with two important but some would say wayward institutions. Having bruised the egos of church leaders in the RH debate as well as the PCSO “cars for clergy” scandal, he diplomatically offered an olive branch to the Catholic bishops who were in the audience. He also made sure to gain the support of the military and the police through his procurement of defense assets and provision of low-cost housing.

He clearly did not want to get side-tracked from his simple narrative that his anti-corruption drive would bring about national development. He even found a way to weave the protection of our sovereignty to his good government agenda.

The need for nuance

The sharpening of the edges around this vision of a nation free of the wang-wang mentality and the personalization of this vision as pronounced by PNoy himself was crafted to appeal to the broader sections of his audience. The president was railing against the very government he led. He spoke as an outsider, as an insurgent much like the late former US president Ronald Reagan who saw it as his task to fight the menace of “big government” or more contemporaneously of British PM David Cameron who seeks to displace it with a “big society”.

If you agree with his thesis that corruption prevents growth, then there will be much in the SONA to cheer about. If on the other hand, you consider the empirical as well as historic evidence that corruption per se is not the culprit, but rather the lack of a coherent bureaucracy around a national development project, then you will recognize the effectiveness of myth-making in public speeches.

Indeed if you believe the former, then everything is fine and dandy. But if you believe the latter, then the lack of substance or clarity on how the government intends to reverse the dangerous trend in our employment mix through some kind of industry or tax policy with the stalling of the government’s major investment strategy means that when the favorable conditions turn sour, as they most certainly will, we are in for a rude awakening somewhere down the track.

One of the best public speakers in his day was George W Bush. He was able to rally his people behind a clean, crisp message against the “evil doers”. He left the incovenient truths and nuances of intelligence out of public debate. Ten years later, we find the repercussions both strategically and economically of this form of “messaging” that have mired his country in a highly polarized debate over the national debt.

The need to speak clearly is one thing, but the need to speak more factually is another. Hopefully in the future, the president’s communications and strategy team will be able to craft a message that marries the two.