health reform

Trapo Alert! Detecting political pandering, part 2

Featuring Chiz Escudero, Risa Hontiveros and Loren Legarda.

This is the second 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). I have identified nineteen so far that have articulated some kind of policy agenda in running for a seat in the upper house. 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 analysed the platforms of Juan Edgardo Angara, Jr, Benigno Aquino IV and Alan Peter Cayetano.

In this instalment, I will be covering Francis Escudero, Risa Hontiveros and Loren Legarda.

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Francis “Chiz” Escudero (Ind.-Team PNoy) has spent his time in the senate over the last Congress submitting bills that delve mostly on justice and human rights having been the chair of the said committee. As such he has been responsible for shepherding a number of notable bills like the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Law of 2012 through the Senate. This should be counted as one of his greatest achievements to date.

The Senator has also filed a number of bills that aim to strengthen social justice and democratic accountability such as the bill seeking to strengthen the investigative and prosecutorial powers of the human rights commission and the freedom of information bill.

His platform for this senate race attempts to cover a broader agenda such as shelter, the environment, health, food security, education, entrepreneurship and employment, peace and order, protection of women and children. While the platform consists of very broad principles-some would call them motherhood statements-the following two senate bills he has filed are examples of concrete proposals he has put forth when it comes to social and economic policy.

1. Educational Trust Fund (ETF)

  • Description: a voluntary scheme in which GSIS and SSS members could contribute regular payments into a plan that would cover educational costs for their grantees. This would make the GSIS and SSS similar to the Central or Employees Provident Fund of Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, which are pension funds, but allow employees to withdraw part of their accumulated contributions for educational purposes.
  • Cost: to be determined
  • Source of funding: member’s voluntary payments

My critique:

If done correctly, this could solve the problems of insolvency that have been observed in a number of privately managed educational plans. The coverage of the ETF plans has to be defined by the actuaries of the two government institutions to avoid the problems related to tuition inflation. The fact that the scheme is voluntary means that individuals can still exercise their right to opt out of it. The creation of a public provider to compete with existing private pension plans will be an interesting new dynamic in the industry.

2. Magna Carta for Informal Sector Workers

  • Description: this bill seeks to create a number of entitlements for informal sector workers such as those working in the construction, farming, fisheries, retail and transport sectors. It seeks to grant formal rights to micro-enterprises through a business registration system administered at the local level in which business permits would be issued to street hawkers, sidewalk vendors, transport operators and the like. The annual dues start at Php100 and scale up to Php1.500 depending on the net worth of the individual. This net worth is to be verified using financial statements as proof. The money collected goes into an Informal Sector Development Fund, which uses the money to provide all the sorts of benefits: everything from housing, education, health (including reproductive health), and support for their industry.
  • Cost: to be determined
  • Source of funds: Ninety per cent of all revenues from business registration of informal sector workers and entrepreneurs and ninety per cent of fees and dues collected from PAGCOR and PCSO.

My critique:

This, in my view, demonstrates the limits to taking a “rights-based approach” to social and economic issues. By creating a whole set of rights for informal workers and business operators, there is no question that the intentions of the bill are noble. How realistic it is though is another matter. One can legislate these rights into being, but enforcing them is a bit hard for a government that is chronically underfunded. For one, not many informal sector workers would have financial statements of their net worth as the bill assumes they do. Second, many unintended consequences could occur such as continued harassment of those who do not come up with the fees to register themselves (and continued corruption from street level “enforcers”). The whole purpose of the bill could be subverted at the local level.

Overall Comments:

Senator Escudero has authored a number of sensible pieces of legislation that deal with justice and political rights. It is when he tries to legislate social and economic rights that things become a bit of a mixed bag. Perhaps in preparation for another stab at higher office in 2016, he seems to be pitching himself as a candidate with a broader agenda, more appropriate for a chief executive. The problem is, it is a bit of a hit and miss situation when it comes to that, so far.

Pander-o-meter: 2.5 out of 5

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Risa Hontiveros (Akbayan-Team PNoy) who was a proponent of the cheaper medicines law and reproductive health bill at the lower house when she was a party-list representative is staking her second run for a senate seat on health issues. To wit, she has issued a policy statement covering the health sector, which has five key planks towards “making health care more universal”. The five planks of her program include:

  1. Increased spending on healthcare through the budget
  2. Tighter regulation of private health facilities to address affordability of health-care
  3. Upholding patient’s rights and standards of healthcare treatment
  4. Disease prevention and promotion of healthier lifestyles
  5. Improving the quality of training and education of healthcare workers

My critique:

There are no costings to her proposals. She hasn’t really specified what this five-pronged strategy would mean to ordinary people on the ground in terms of what they should expect. She hasn’t really talked about how much the health spending ought to increase as a share of GDP. She hasn’t really said if there ought to be a patient’s bill of rights and the method for enforcing those rights.

One thing she has spoken about with regard to healthier lifestyles is that she supports banning the sale of sugary drinks in school cafeterias. As to how to improve the quality of healthcare professionals, again there is not enough detail regarding this. Should non-performing schools be closed, for instance, or should better disclosure and consumer information be relied upon to improve student choice as I have suggested here.

Since we do not know how much health spending needs to be, we don’t have a clue as to how much to raise to fund it. What about a “fat tax”, as I have advocated in this space? I have estimated it would raise a significant amount that could in fact fund health reform programs and interventions.

Overall comments:

There are so many blanks to be filled in Risa Hontiveros’s policy platform. I hope she gets around to filling some of them before the election season ends. Overall, I feel that if these policy prescriptions (sorry for the pun) were to be fleshed out, they would provide greater clarity to citizens about what she is fighting for and her distinctive appeal. She can literally dominate and “own” this policy space if she really wanted to. It’s a pity that she has been forced to deal with “Team Patay” distractions and hasn’t been able to scope out her place as a senate contender, yet.

Despite this lack of detail, however, the intent of her health policy statement is clearly headed in the right direction, for the most part. I still am not clear about how tighter regulation will lead to lower cost of delivering health service, since the jury is still out on whether the cheap medicines act has in fact done the same in the pharmacy industry. It is important for her to state what the intended outcome of these policy directions will be and the principles she would adhere to in designing either an expansion of existing health services and entitlements or the creation of new ones.

Pander-o-meter: 2 out of 5

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Loren Legarda (NP-Team PNoy) launched LOREN, an acronym that stands for Livelihood Opportunities to Raise Employment Nationwide, as her campaign platform for 2013. According to the senator, “LOREN sa Bawat Barangay will be a consultation with various sectors of society and concerned local government agencies on how to raise employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. This is a program I did during my first term in the Senate and we will have it in every region in the country.” The policy intent of LOREN is to implement four employment and business laws that she has been responsible for (see below), conduct job fairs and disaster risk and reduction programs. The four laws referred to are listed below:

Public Employment Service Office (PESO) Act RA 8759 of 1999. The law that set up PESO, which according to the Bureau of Local Employment website is “a non-fee charging multi-employment service facility or entity established or accredited”. These are meant to provide job fairs, livelihood and self-employment bazaars, workers hiring for infrastructure projects, credit and the like. The law requires these to be provided in “all capital towns of provinces, key cities, and other strategic areas”.

Magna Carta for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) RA 9501 of 2008. This act amended earlier laws RA 6977 of 1991 covering MSMEs which now range from firms with capitalisation of under Php3 million for micro enterprises up  to Php100 million for medium-sized enterprises (the earlier law defined the range from less than Php50,000 to Php20 million. In its current form, this law seeks to intensify and expand existing programs that encourage entrepreneurship and skills acquisition, facilitate access to funds and government procurement contracts, reduce red-tape and stringent requirements, and to foster linkages with large companies and industry associations.

Barangay Kabuhayan Act RA 9509 of 2008 which establishes livelihood and skills training centres 4th, 5th and 6th class municipalities with satellite and mobile training centres. The purpose of this law is to extend the services of government with respect to livelihood and skills down to the grassroots level.

Agri-Agra Reform Credit Act RA 10000 of 2010. This law seeks to provide an agriculture and agrarian reform system of credit and financing through banking institutions. The law mandates banks to allocate a minimum of 25% of their loan portfolio to agricultural loans and a minimum of 10% for agrarian reform beneficiary loans.  They can do this by either lending directly to loan applicants or to other banks and institutions that specialise in offering credit to the primary sector.

My critique:

It is a bit strange that the senator is seeking re-election so that she can implement these laws which have been in place for up to fourteen years. Surely, what she ought to be doing is seek an evaluation of the policies and programs through an externally commissioned study. That is the very essence of evidence based policy analysis and advice. She should push for the inclusion of that in the assigned line agencies’ budgets.

Furthermore, it seems a bit strange that the senator is campaigning by offering job fairs and disaster risk and reduction programs. Regardless of how noble the purpose of these projects may be, they should really be done outside the election campaign period.  If a rich billionaire were to distribute relief goods to flood victims during the campaign season, wouldn’t that be regarded as a form of vote buying? Furthermore, this “consultation” as she terms it might be skewed due to the context in which it is being performed—during an election.

Overall comments:

The senator is clearly pivoting to hip pocket issues. Her means of doing this is by demonstrating her track record through the laws she has co-authored in the area. She has toned down her environmental and women’s rights advocacies for the moment. She probably recognises that for her to aspire for a higher office in the future, she needs to solidify her economic credentials with the masses.

That can only be established through the effectiveness of the programs she has sponsored as a legislator. That as I said should already have been done. It is rather disappointing that so many years since the enactment of these laws, no serious effort has been made to try and measure their impact, which is perhaps why she has nothing new to offer the electorate this time around in terms of new or updated legislation.

Pander-o-meter: 4 out of 5

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Next, I will cover Aquilono “Koko” Pimentel, III, Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito and Juan “Jack” Ponce Enrile, Jr.

Reformists and Populists

The debate over policies needed to make permanent progress achieved under President Aquino’s rubric of Daang Matuwid (the Righteous Path) has not happened yet and perhaps never will.

Reformist measures are best kept close to one’s chest, not announced until they are actually implemented. That is because these measures often involve some pain to be borne by some section of the community, which essentially leads to votes being lost rather than won. In contrast populist measures are worth shouting from the rooftops since they appeal to voters but don’t necessarily make for good policies once in office. That is the quandary facing the administration as it campaigns for its senators for the coming election.

Just cast your gaze on the Team Patay (Death) slogan foisted by the clergymen against the administration’s ticket in protest over the passage of the reproductive health bill which the government facilitated over the church’s objections. Team PNoy candidates act surprised although they could’ve seen it coming. One way for them to take the heat away from this issue however would be to focus on their plans to introduce reforms to expand insurance coverage and make health care more affordable using the taxes to be raised from the sin tax law which was another major landmark piece of legislation the government achieved.

But they have for the most part refrained from outlining a vision for the health care system, allowing other players in the UNA coalition to establish their own credentials in the area. By ceding control over the health debate, the administration is underplaying the tremendous hand it holds–it alone can credibly put forward a detailed, costed program of health reform that would lead to millions more Filipinos enjoying better benefits from its health spending.

This is particularly disadvantageous to candidates like Risa Hontiveros who is outside the winner’s circle, given her stand on the reproductive health issue. Her candidacy could be given a significant boost if she were to be identified as the future architect of health reform in the senate. Ms Hontiveros should be given the role of explaining the planned reforms to come in this area and be given a policy team to help scope out what those reforms should be. Instead, due to the lack of such assistance, her policy pronouncements in health have necessarily been vague and non-committal.

Secondly, consider the conditional cash transfers program, which the present administration considers its “cornerstone” in its fight against poverty. The World Bank recently released a report on the first stage of the program. Its findings were for the most part positive-places that were targeted by the program were found to have significantly higher levels of school participation and better health outcomes compared to similar areas that were not targeted. In fact, in areas where the program was not so successful, e.g. maintaining retention among older age groups of children, the study suggested extending the program beyond the current five years.

This would provide a solid basis for the administration to claim credit and to bat for a continued ramping up of the program, but there hasn’t been a party-wide celebration of the findings, or a vigorous endorsement of it. Instead, the stage has been vacated to departmental technocrats to extol its virtues against its critics in the UNA coalition who have maintained the old tired line that it has been nothing but a dole out.

One candidate cunningly sought to depict the government’s prioritising of the conditional cash transfers program as misplaced,  saying it could have instead spent the money on free college education and skills training–quite a clever way to wedge college student voters against the disenfranchised indigent households across the country.

Thirdly, in making the anti-corruption and transparency measures adopted by the administration more durable, the government has failed to articulate a program of action towards this end. This is partly due to the fact that its path towards greater openness has itself suffered setbacks. Its Open Budget Index score in the latest report of the International Budget Partnership fell by seven points, meaning Filipinos have been denied full access to budget information. Despite overtaking Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia in Transparency International’s corruption perception rankings, it has slipped two notches in the World Bank’s Cost of Doing Business report.

The government should be arguing from a position of strength in this area given the president’s reputation as an honest leader in contrast to the scandals involving the use and abuse of pork and privilege by those opposite. Team PNoy ought to be taking a suite of reforms to the electorate, including such measures as the Freedom of Information, Whistle Blower Protection, strengthening the powers of the ombudsman, fiscal incentives rationalisation, budget sustainability and transparency reforms. Instead, its campaign has failed to create any daylight between it and the UNA coalition with regard to these issues.

Again, this is in part due to the fact that enacting such reforms runs counter to the populist mode of campaigning it is forced to undertake. Championing the cause of fiscal transparency, openness and sustainability would run counter to the many proposed pieces of legislation that candidates under the administration are espousing at the moment.

I could go on. The plans for generating employment following the release of the latest jobs figures which show fewer people finding work compared to last year ought to spur a debate around the best way to promote inclusiveness in a nation that continues to post robust GDP growth figures. Instead the debate is confined to small minded livelihood programs (despite revelations of pork going to dubious organisations connected to legislators). There really isn’t a debate over how to transform the industrial mix of the nation or on how to direct foreign remittances to productive employment generating activity.

The people within the campaign probably feel that the need to elevate the debate is unnecessary given that its candidates seem to be improving in the polls. The UNA coalition seems to have suffered a few setbacks of its own given the negative press surrounding some of its principals, the ones which I have alluded to above. Yet, recent headlines involving Sabah and the president’s handling of it might cause some damage to its ticket.

To provide its candidates with a greater edge, the administration needs to arm them with solid, well-thought out programs that would demonstrate its seriousness in cementing its reform agenda. Rather than running a race based on populist rhetoric, its candidates need to be equipped with enough detailed policy advice to articulate what these reforms mean and how they would work once enacted. Rather than the airy-fairy platitudes and motherhood statements that they currently mouth, the campaign needs to bring the exalted righteous path down to earth.

If it does this, then voters might not feel the need to hedge their bets with the opposing side; they will provide the government with the majority it needs in the upper house. After all, if the nation were truly convinced that daang matuwid works, there would be no point in undertaking it with half-measures (no pun intended). The only way to pursue it would be to go all in.