Politics as an intellectual or practical discipline is a lot like writing: it only means something if it has a context. Skill or ineptitude in politics is usually only evident in application—strategic, financial, or social management—which means that most of the time we can safely ignore the politics and focus on the outcomes; in other words, pass judgments on the message rather than the messenger.
There are times, however, when the credibility of the messenger becomes an issue that cannot be ignored. President Benigno Aquino 3rd crossed that line last Wednesday evening, when he expropriated 12 minutes of the country’s dinner hour to deliver a defiant, desperate defense of the “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (DAP). In doing so, President Aquino made the current crisis, which only began with the revelations of widespread plunder of the so-called Priority Development Assistance Program, or “pork barrel,” about him by declaring, “Hindi kami magnanakaw” (literally, “we are not thieves,” which most commentators have interpreted as “I am not a thief”).
The line struck a sour chord with the public, because as has been pointed out numerous times since the President said it, no one has actually accused him of being a thief. That is an oversight that should be corrected right now: He, or rather “they,” meaning his administration, since it was in the collective sense he offered the protestation of innocence (which, coincidentally, marked the first time in more than three years that President Aquino has publicly acknowledged command responsibility for anything) are thieves, by a very basic definition.
And we can say “are” instead of “were” or “have been” because, after all, the whole point of President Aquino’s speech was to stress that he had no intention of stopping the practice. He and his regime might not have stolen the people’s money for their own personal gain—although the remarkable increase in personal worth indicated by the very few disclosures he and his top political companions have deigned to make public may make that a legitimate question—but they did steal money from the purposes intended for it by the people of the Philippines.
The precise legal term, so I am told, is “malversation.” The example of the Tacloban Airport project has been highlighted in many articles already, and it’s a good example because it’s easy to understand: From a P1-billion budget, included in the General Appropriations Act approved by the people’s legislative representatives, P718 million was impounded by the Office of the President and directed to other purposes, without the approval of the people who earmarked it for something else. That is theft, therefore, the declaration “we are not thieves” is a lie.
And the lies just keep piling up. If “DAP is not pork barrel” as the President claimed, then what are we to make of his explanation that “only 9 percent” went to projects designated by legislators, i.e., was used in exactly the same manner as the now universally reviled PDAF? For that matter, if the DAP was concocted in 2011 as the President claimed, why did the public only become aware of it after Sen. Jinggoy Estrada revealed it in his “if I’m going down, I’m going to take as many as I can with me” privilege speech, and why did several Senators—supposedly beneficiaries of the “9 percent”—also claim not to hear of it before then? This is, after all, a President who goes to great lengths to detail every niggling “accomplishment” of his administration in his annual State of the Nation Address, which he has delivered at least twice since the supposed creation of the DAP—are we seriously expected to believe that he would have simply forgotten to mention it then, if it was so important to preempt prime-time TV to discuss it now?
Why, if his critics are only focusing on DAP to “distract attention” from the equally if not more egregious plunder involving the PDAF, did the President not enjoin his justice secretary—who we already know doesn’t so much as put her shoes on in the morning without a specific directive from Malacañang—to prevent the departure to the United States of one of the most high-profile figures indicted in the case?
A few days ago, I read a manifesto of sorts, which comprised eight “concrete calls” to address the pork barrel crisis, from the group called the #ScrapPork Network. Here is an example of politics in the proper context; while the personal perspectives of some of the self-appointed leaders of the anti-pork barrel “movement” are perhaps a little dubious, the people themselves have actually done a fairly good job of depersonalizing their advocacy when it comes to a specific plan of action: Their message is made far more important than the messengers, and while there are probably little points worth debating in the eight “concrete calls,” they are on the whole well thought-out, sensible and substantive.
But none of that matters, nor do the efforts of others to address other systemic issues such as government finance, human capital management, or trade, because the President by declaring “Hindi kami magnanakaw” has declared to everyone that he does not see himself and his close knot of political enablers as managers of a system, but leading according to some extraordinary personal authority that has more in common with the divine right of kings than the sovereign right of the people in a democracy. It would be one thing if he who rules by caprice has demonstrated competence, and a record of objective, positive results. It is quite another when that ruler demonstrates only that he is ignorant, unintentionally or otherwise, of the concepts of “honesty” and “not stealing.” That makes him the problem, and woe to the people of the Philippines that it is so, because that is not the problem they or anyone else in the world wants them to have to solve.