MOST of the public relations and other “corporate communications” people I know are gnashing their teeth in frustration these days, as current events are making it next to impossible to attract any attention to “normal” news.
One agency that is almost certainly not at all discouraged by the lack of notice is the Department of Transportation and Communications. In ordinary times—that is, in weeks in which the public and the media is not consumed with continuing outrage at the treasonous behavior of their own government—DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya would be rightly pilloried for the arrogant way he is treating inquiries into the unilateral and arbitrary light rail fare hike authorized by his office last month.
On Tuesday, Abaya—with great reluctance, one must suppose—deigned to put in an appearance at the hearing of the Senate subcommittee on Public Services chaired by Senator Grace Poe, after having snubbed two previous ‘invitations’ to explain the fare increase.
Abaya’s appearance, however, was an insult to the Senate body and the citizens in whose interests the hearings are being held. Knowing full well the subject of the hearings and the information being sought, Abaya purposely did not bring with him the concession agreement between the government and the Ayala-Metro Pacific consortium which now controls the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA), wherein a schedule of fare increases over the next two years is key condition.
Abaya or his DOTC minions might explain the omission as an unintentional slip (that was the excuse I was given when I inquired about it), but that puts the Secretary in an even worse light; if it were me, I would prefer to be regarded as arrogant and uncooperative rather than as a brain-addled doofus who can’t remember the fundamental reason he is attending a meeting.
What was most disappointing about the abortive appearance of the DOTC chief was the manner in which Senator Poe addressed Abaya’s critical ‘oversight,’ which is to say she didn’t address it at all. He should have, at a minimum, been handed a subpoena for the required documents, and perhaps even cited in contempt for his transparent attempt to thwart the committee’s investigation. The Senator, however, who has in recent times shown intellectual depth and a feisty streak not indicated by her colorless pre-Senate career and frightening campaign slogan (Anak ni FPJ!), let the matter slide, instead settling for diffidently reminding Abaya to “step up to the challenge” of fixing Metro Manila’s rapidly deteriorating light rail system.
By agreeing not to subject the LRTA concession agreement to public scrutiny, Senator Poe in a sense has validated the autocratic and self-serving way Abaya runs the DOTC, and has done the public a disservice. As was pointed out in The Manila Times’ special reports on the fare hike controversy and utility rate increases in the past couple of weeks, concession agreements are seen as the biggest source of trouble in public-private partnership projects and the fundamental reason the Philippines has some of the highest costs for basic services in Asia. Vague and inconsistent guidelines together with an unjustifiable regard for the ‘confidentiality’ of these agreements have allowed concessionaires to run roughshod over the regulators and pass their costs on to consumers whether those costs are legitimately incurred in the course of providing the public service or not.
Issues with concession agreements are also key factors affecting the work that must be done to pass one of President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s priority legislative measures, the bill to rationalize tax and fiscal incentives for investment. A sober inquiry is thus necessary for two critical reasons: The public must be assured that a framework will be put in place that guarantees that they will receive fair value for the costs that they are asked to shoulder, while investors must be assured that projects will be developed and regulated according to an equitable and consistent set of rules. That is not happening now thanks to Abaya’s stubborn (and so far largely successful) effort to prevent public oversight, which Senator Poe, for reasons that she certainly ought to explain to her constituents, has just abetted.