Frank Drilon

What Mar Roxas, et al can learn from Jojo Binay

He must get under their skin. A lot. By them I mean the good governance (GG) club comprised of Mar Roxas, the Liberal Party (LP) headed by Senate President Frank Drilon and Budget Secretary Butch Abad, civil society and Big Business. As to why, after four years under an honest leader like President Noynoy Aquino (PNoy), who has been pushing for institutional reforms in the bureaucracy with some modest gains, the Filipinos seem set to throw their lot with someone in 2016 who does not come from their flock?

By ‘someone’ I mean Vice President Jejomar Binay, whom they regard as an apostate to their gospel of GG. He has the highest approval rating of any public official in the land including that of PNoy. The latest nationwide poll conducted by the reputable Pulse Asia shows him way ahead of rival contenders for the presidency. Even if you grouped together the support for Grace Poe, Mar Roxas, Allan Peter Cayetano, et al, Binay would still come out on top.

And nothing seems to be able to slow him down from claiming the presidency in two years’ time. Not the revival of old corruption charges against his wife, the former mayor Dr. Elenita Binay, nor allegations of misuse of PDAF by his daughter who is in Congress, not even allegations of overspending on a public car park by his son, the current mayor of Makati, seem to break his stride. To top it all off, the three siblings of PNoy have all but come out in support of Binay’s candidacy.

Talks of a merger between the LP and Binay’s party UNA as well as possibly extending PNoy’s term are all aimed at one thing: ensuring the survival of the Liberal Party as a fighting force into the next presidential cycle. But these demonstrate just how desperate the GG crowd is at the moment with elections in 2016 on the horizon.

It’s one big conundrum that bedevils them. If PNoy has proven that the GG works, why do/es his heir/s apparent appear/s to be languishing at the bottom of the presidential derby? And corollary to that, why is Mar Roxas, his partner in arms, not able to gain the support of more people?

It is no secret that Big Business supports the candidacy of ABB (Anyone But Binay). They are represented by Bill Luz, the former executive director of the Makati Business Club, who now heads the National Competitiveness Council, which is geared to lift the country’s competitiveness in the World Bank league tables, by reducing redtape as measured in the Doing Business Survey.

It is Big Business, also going by the moniker “civil society” that have been trying to oust the Binays from their perch as rulers of the Central Business District of Makati since the people power revolution ensconced them in city hall back in 1986. It is no secret that it is this group that Secretary Mar Roxas associates with, given his own family’s commercial background as owners of the Araneta Centre in Cubao.

Ironically, the way the Binays have fought off the pressure from the business community has been through an inclusive growth and development agenda in the city, something that the GG club have yet to implement elsewhere. The Binays have made sure that the business community paid their fair dues in the form of city and real property taxes to ensure that the lower income classes benefited from the growth of the city.

The problem for the GG crowd is that the Binays, despite being considered ‘stationary bandits’, have proven to be benign autocrats of Makati, fostering an effective program of human development among the poorest in the city that has become the envy of the rest of the nation, without sacrificing the growth and competitiveness of the city.

Indeed, in Bill Luz’s most recent competitiveness rankings for cities and municipalities in the country, Makati has come out on top. Now how can a city which is supposedly run by a corrupt, dynastic, autocratic family remain on top of competitiveness surveys and produce human development indicators that are the ‘best in class’?

The answer is not good governance, but ‘good enough’ governance.

Wait. Hold-on, you might say. The economic vibrancy of Makati comes from its business community. They are the ones who make Makati great. You would only be half right in thinking that. What makes a city competitive is the regime of taxes and regulations, as well as the quality of services offered to residents and businesses. The economic vibrancy of a city can be attributed to the business sector, and for that Makati only comes in second in Luz’s study.

At the national level, we have seen the limits of GG in formulating what Chalmers Johnson called a “plan rational” for the country to govern and expand the economic spheres of activity through robust, coherent policy and regulation.

If you look at the national economic agencies of government, they are in total disarray. The country is heading for, or perhaps already is in, an energy crisis, with rotating brownouts now a reality in several parts of the country (coming to your neighborhood soon, unless PNoy invokes emergency powers, says Energy Secretary Petilla). Power rates are the highest in the region and yet regular power outages may be in the offing in Metro Manila next year. This will severely impact the country’s competitiveness.

Then there is the so-called “ports crisis” as the logistics industry is up in arms with cargo unable to leave Manila’s ports due to no integrated master plan for Manila and the surrounding regions. The LTFRB has been in conflict with the MMDA, unable to process applications for truckers on time, which has led to the prevalence of unlicensed operators. Provincial buses are another cause of paralysis.

We turn to rail policy and here, it was not too long ago the manager in charge of maintaining the Metro Rail Transit came under fire for favoring bidders with close relations to his family. Frequent breakdowns and accidents have resulted causing the riding public to suffer delays and lower productivity due to inefficient public transport.

The PPPs that came into effect this year were improperly co-ordinated causing great aggravation to the motoring public as roads and elevated skyway projects have simultaneous commenced, almost in a mad rush to leave a physical legacy after PNoy steps down from office.

The airports have notoriously been a source of shame for the country being labelled the worst in the world. With the NAIA-3 becoming fully operational, some of the congestion will be eased, but only slightly. To cope up with increased demand, another runway at Sangley Point needs to be rushed. It took a decade to get NAIA-3 finally running, how long will it take for Sangley to come on stream?

Shifting to telecommunications and internet policy, we have one of the slowest, if not the slowest internet speeds in the region. Congestion experienced by networks has been the subject of much investigation in the senate as complaints of bad service permeate. It seems that the regulatory body in charge has failed to set the proper framework to ensure that services offered by private providers was adequate to meet the needs of an increasingly technology-connected population. The high cost and poor quality of service again affects our global competitiveness.

Transportation, information technology, communications, and energy policies all play a significant part in expanding the economic activity of a nation and are a major input to the cost of basic goods. Without robust regulatory agencies staffed with people who have not worked for the big players or are in cahoots with them, supported by a good attraction and retention policy, the result is what we see.

Secretary Mar Roxas was in charge of the Department of Transport and Communication for a good period of time. The policy frameworks in the areas of air, port, rail, logistics, information and communication were within the scope of his portfolio. The current secretary was apparently hand-picked by him. The GG agenda seems to have stalled if not utterly failed to set the right framework for future growth. Electricity, transport and communications policies are all in shambles.

Yet, PNoy’s presidency has almost solely been devoted to improving the expenditure side of government through reforms in the Department of Budget and Management. For an administration to be so focused on the efficiency of government expenditure means it concerns itself with only one fifth of our economy (which is what the national budget represents). The economic regulations, however, affect the whole economy because of their impact on both the public and private sectors.

The reason why PNoy was so focused on reforming the budget process? He wanted to prove that his GG mantra works. And yet, all that happened was a slowdown of expenditure in the first two years of his presidency, leading to a halving of economic growth. His budget department tried to fix this with the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which has now gone down in flames.

The LP through Sec Abad is now pushing for bottom-up or participatory budgeting through local government units with Mar Roxas, now secretary for the interior and local government in charge of handing out grants to them. Can the GG club redeem itself, following the DAP debacle in the lead up to the elections?

The problem with this scheme is that expenditure is only one side of local government success. You need a proper taxation regime in place. When Jejomar Binay spoke before the influential Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D. C., he narrated the challenge he faced when he first became mayor of Makati. The city’s finances were in disarray, experiencing chronic deficits. He needed to fix it through proper revenue measures to improve the quality and availability of services.

PNoy entered Malacanang Palace with a “no new taxes” pledge, which has resulted in no new revenue measures being passed except for the sin tax law, which Frank Drilon championed in the senate. Unfortunately, this pledge has limited his ability to fulfill his social contract with the Filipino people.

Meanwhile his acolytes in the senate keep proposing measures to erode the tax base by increasing exemptions, or reducing tax rates. They also want to increase the salaries and benefits of government employees, en masse, thereby putting upward pressure on spending. These senators, who have not had a day of executive experience in their political lives, would not know how to balance a budget if they were to succeed PNoy in 2016. And yet each of them would vie for the mantle of GG.

The social contract came with the age of enlightenment in Europe. The covenant entered into by the state and industry was one whereby taxes would be imposed on businesses; and in return, the state would provide basic public education and sanitation to provide a healthy, literate workforce for the factories being built during the Industrial Revolution. Here we are in the 21st Century and the proponents of our social contract do not understand the essential bargain required to educate masses with the skills needed for the Information/Digital Age.

The GG club’s approach to higher education is to shut down erring schools. PNoy said he charged CHED Chair Licuanan with closing the nursing schools who were producing graduates that did not pass the nursing board exams. She then proceeded to form “commandos” to do just that. Three years later, and according to the government’s own statistical report card, the proportion of board passers has actually declined, not risen. What happened here? Did they really go after erring schools, or just the ones that posed a threat to the big universities?

Meanwhile there is still not an adequate level of financing for higher education in place that would make tertiary education an entitlement, and lift the quality of the sector. Our universities continue to slide down the global league tables.

In each of these policy spheres, the responsible agencies have been susceptible, if not downright captured by large industry players whom they were meant to regulate. Policies are not being developed by independent agencies. As a result, the needs of clients and the nation at large have not been looked after. There is no long-term view to policy. In addition, the technical and leadership capacities of people running these agencies is severely hampered by a lack of proper resourcing.

For the economy to expand rapidly, it requires rational players in economic agencies who come from the best and brightest. These individuals need to be selected on the basis of merit. They need to have the resources to be able to fulfill their mandate. Our competitiveness and future economic vibrancy depend on that happening.

Coming back to Jojo Binay. If you look at the performance of his own housing portfolio through the government’s own statistical scorecard, his agencies look like they are hitting their targets. This is again another feather in his cap—unlike the GG scorecard, which shows PNoy’s government failing in all but one indicator of the World Governance Indicators, the one for political stability, which has come about through his popularity and taking care of the military and police through the budget.

As we come to the final third of PNoy’s presidency, it does not look like the GG goals are going to be met, nor do we find a rational set of policies being laid down to govern the economy’s expansion. For investments and jobs to be created, we need to have a high performing economic bureaucracy taking charge of all these policy areas. Unfortunately, so far we have not built that capacity and the results speak for themselves.

What Mar Roxas, et al from the GG club can learn from Jojo Binay is the following:

  1. Governance is in the doing, not the talking.
  2. Governance is about developing rational, long range policy, independent of vested interests, i.e. the major players in industry.
  3. Governance needs to be felt on the ground for it to be sustainable.

The Binays represent a formula of benign, “good enough” governance that has worked at the local level for over two decades. For Mar and the rest to offer a viable alternative to him, they will need to provide us with concrete evidence that their formula for GG has done what Binay and Makati has been able to achieve. Sans that documentary proof, they might as well throw in the towel.

Our experience with PNoy has exposed the limits of GG. The thesis that kung walap corrupt, walang mahirap. Binay on the other hand has proven the success of “good enough” governance. It has proven to be more appropriate given our stage in development to be content with setting the framework for business to thrive and expand, while ensuring that they pay their fair share to make this growth inclusive.

It doesn’t matter that he has acted like a “stationary bandit” preying on the rich to give to the poor, while ensuring that the rich still get to keep their wealth and build their empires. It doesn’t matter that the Binays have amassed wealth in the process and have turned into a formidable political dynasty. This has allowed them to take a long-term view of development and govern the city without being beholden to the big end of town.

If the GG club want leaders who are honest, yet able to win elections without becoming beholden to vested interests, they need to initiate campaign finance reform and provide state funding for political parties. The only other option is what the Binays are doing in Makati.

Economic agencies are a rich source of campaign finance through the licenses, franchises and policies they craft that can easily be made to favor the big players. The reason they are weak in a developing and emerging country context is precisely to allow political bosses to use them as a source of campaign donations. You see the system is not dysfunctional. It is purposefully built to serve their needs. The only way to fix corruption and incompetence in these agencies is to finance political parties so that they do not have to depend on them as a source of funding. Then invest in their capacity and upkeep.

If we don’t fix this, then we should not complain that our choices come election time are so limited.

Seeds of undoing

greek-tragedy-and-comedy-masks

An essential element of Greek tragedy according to Aristotle is for protagonists to carry with them the seeds of their own undoing. Often it comes in the form of “hubris”, man’s feeling of invincibility, which makes him tempt fate, or contest the will of the gods.

The same sense of mortality that comes at the end of each plot seemed to creep in last week as results of internal polling commissioned by the administration and leaked by a Palace insider showed the president’s popularity taking a nosedive as a result of his response to the controversy involving the release of impounded government savings without congressional approval.

DAP or the disbursement acceleration program was hatched by budget secretary Butch Abad, the chief ideologue of the Liberal Party to deal with the embarrassingly sluggish pace at which the economy was crawling at the time, dragged down by fiscal contraction. This was the result of the administration’s own deliberate attempts at house cleaning by scrutinising projects and contracts which were entered into by its predecessor.

The irony is that in a bid to rid the government of the ghost of Mrs Arroyo, the Aquino administration wound up committing the very same act that it accused her of, namely re-aligning budget items out of expediency. During Mrs Arroyo’s presidency, the opposition blocked passage of her proposed general appropriations for a number of fiscal cycles forcing a re-enactment of the previous year’s budget. This enabled her to reallocate spending across departments at will for budgeted projects that had already been completed the previous year.

Mr Aquino faced an entirely different situation but ended up with the same outcome. He had no problem getting congressional sign-off on his proposed annual expenditures, which sailed through in record time. His problem was getting the approved amounts spent. Having applied the fiscal brakes too harshly in a bid to present a clean break with the past, he wound up revisiting it.

The Department of Budget and Management explains how much was spent under DAP and for what purpose, as follows

For 2011-2012, a total of P142.23 Billion was released for programs and projects identified through the DAP, of which P83.53 Billion is for 2011 and 58.70 Billion is for 2012. In 2011, the amount was used to provide additional funds for programs/projects such as healthcare, public works, housing and resettlement, and agriculture, among others. While in 2012, these were used to augment tourism road infrastructure, school infrastructure, rehabilitation and extension of light rail transit systems, and sitio electrification, among others. […]
Of the total DAP approved by OP (Office of the President) for 2011-2012 amounting to a total of P142.23 Billion only 9 percent was released to programs and projects identified by legislators. These were not released directly to legislators but to implementing agencies.

The sad thing about DAP is that even though less than a tenth of it was directed at legislators, the whole program has become tainted as a result of the scandal that broke out involving the funneling of some of this money into bogus NGOs identified by them.

Not only that, but its release coincided with the impeachment of the Arroyo-appointed chief justice, which the Palace had openly campaigned for. It carried the hint of political back scratching. Add to that the contestable basis on which one branch of government allocated its savings to another (from executive to legislative), and you have the appearance of a government that disregarded the rules in pursuit of its political agenda.

To top it all off, the president appeared on national television denouncing his critics, denying the label “king of pork” that grated his good government sensibilities, claiming that he was “not a thief” in a fashion reminiscent of US president Richard Nixon who left office in disgrace. It is truly tragic that, after cruising at an astronomically high altitude in opinion polls, stratospheric compared to his predecessors, he should come plummeting back to earth and be forced to distinguish himself from common criminals in this manner.

To think that this all happened when the government seemed to be getting into its stride. The past year has been particularly productive with the enactment of several reform measures like reproductive health, sin taxes, and universal health care. In addition, there was the uplift in the country’s credit ratings and ranking in the Doing Business Survey, the resurgence of manufacturing investments, and the signing of the peace deal with Muslim rebels. The growth figures for the first half of the year seemed appealing to most outside investors, as well.

With legal challenges left, right and centre seeking to undermine its legitimacy, the government now appears besieged. Previously, one would have been forgiven for thinking that with its recent string of successes, the regime may be able to manage an orderly succession to its hand-picked nominee. But with the Liberal Party’s important figures, Senate President Frank Drilon and Budget Secretary Butch Abad, in the hot seat for their involvement in the DAP, the party seems like a spent force, having lost its moral authority.

Elite bargain

When Senator Jinggoy Estrada angrily accused the administration of hypocrisy for what he claimed was an unfair targeting of the opposition, I expressed doubts that his tirade would inflict any serious damage on the teflon presidency of Mr Aquino. With hindsight, it now appears to have been an effective ploy. Estrada’s complaint was that there seemed to be “no honor among thieves”, that cosy symbiotic relationship among complicit individuals.

What he was referring to was the political bargain that occurs in multiparty democracies within developing states, in which power is alternately shared among various groups of elites. Corruption is tacitly tolerated because it is assumed that each group will commit it once it is their turn to rule. Allowing a group of oppositionists to be singled out for prosecution, to ruin their political careers, is in effect, reneging on this grand bargain. Mr Estrada’s retaliatory response did nothing to protect him from prosecution, but it nevertheless inflicted damage on the administration for its “unfair” actions.

Time will tell if the damage inflicted is merely a flesh cut, or a mortal wound, but from the perspective of the reformers within the administration, it is a bad omen. Not only has the focus on PDAF and DAP abuse detracted from its policy agenda, it is going to make it difficult to secure votes for what could be unpopular pieces of legislation, particularly in the lead up to the next election when political turncoats will begin sniffing the political winds in search of their new padrino.

The reform constituency often claims that in order to make our political and economic systems more inclusive, we need to eliminate all forms of rent from society. That is we need to generate a clean, accountable and transparent system of governance, and that there will be no trade-offs between pursuing this agenda and pro-poor economic growth. This is in part the fault of the international donor community that has peddled this idea for over a decade on nations with very different institutional foundations.

Reality runs contrary to this notion, particularly if you look at the development experience of the “tiger” economies of East Asia and the “lion” economies of Africa, which are the fastest growing in the world. The tragedy of Daang Matuwid, the good governance agenda of the Aquino administration was that it failed to acknowledge this. It took the economy for granted while hastily conducting a highly charged political prosecution of its predecessor regime.

When the economy started slipping into second gear, it unlocked the floodgates of spending and applied less stringent controls on congressional pork barrel projects than it enforced on its own administrative agencies. It committed an act of “hubris” in thinking that it had succeeded in transforming the political culture of the country. It now finds itself defending a system of rent distribution that its constituents consider anathema to its own brand of government.

It is for this reason that many honest, reform-minded governments get eaten up by the system they seek to change. They often set goals that are too lofty, such as the elimination of corruption within one term of office, or the removal of patronage in favour of a system that observes the rule of law and democratic accountability. In the pursuit of good governance, the perfect often becomes the adversary of the good.

At the end of such a trail is “reform-fatigue”, with a disillusioned electorate turning to corrupt leaders who are able to distribute rents in ways that cater to their local needs. Such leaders are seen to be more competent and effective. This scenario could eventuate in 2016, with many in the reform constituency distrusting the LP and seeking an alternative candidate with a fresh face. This will split their votes and allow a pragmatic populist to gain power.

The scandals that have bedevilled congress and engulfed the president have served only to discourage certain contenders from the opposition to seek higher office, clearing the way for the vice president to consolidate its forces behind him. This means that their votes are less likely to be split along factional lines. And with the vice president’s popularity remaining intact, his lead will simply be unassailable.

The only way for the ruling LP to avoid electoral defeat is for it to deliver rapid, pro-poor growth within the remainder of its term. That won’t be easy, particularly since its formula for producing it, the good governance agenda (captured in its mantra: kung walang kurap, walang mahirap) has already been discredited in different parts of the world where it has been faithfully applied.