Pro-Arroyo Civil Groups Have Power to Avoid Tough Funding Questions

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Pro-Arroyo Civil Groups Have Power to Avoid Tough Funding Questions

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Facing questions over what would come to be known as Watergate, and public criticism over how he filed his income tax returns, US President Richard Nixon tried to use the Internal Revenue Service of the United States to audit and harass his enemies. Nixon gave a list of 490 names to the IRS, which, to its credit, refused to be used as a means to get back at the president’s opponents.

Philippine presidents have been just as vindictive as Nixon but the Bureau of Internal Revenue hasn’t always been as willing to resist presidential pressure. However, using government agencies to audit enemies is a double-edged sword, since it opens up government officials to questions on how they spend public funds, and also becomes a counter-productive exercise if the officials end up cornered for violations of the law or regulations by the Commission on Audit.

Still, officialdom has an advantage private corporations and their owners, and private citizens in general, don’t have: they can obfuscate, delay, and generally weather scrutiny or any public outcry. Non-officials, on the other hand, usually lack the staying power and indifference to public opinion that public officials often demonstrate. The citizen outside government usually lives in terror of audits or even a whiff of scandal concerning income or spending.

This is something officialdom knows: Sometimes it does not require the actual undertaking of an audit, but merely proposing the possibility of one, to frighten a critic or enemy into submission. After all, you can’t fight city hall; and if the powers-that-be are gunning for you, whether innocent or not, you are in for a bumpy ride at the hands of the government.

All things being equal, on both sides of any great political division, you will find the same kind of people in either camp. There will be businessmen who support, for example, the present administration, and there will be businessmen critical of the government. There will be academics, members of the middle and professional classes, peasants and politicians advocating either for or against a proposition. Sometimes it is tempting to conclude that the only thing separating the two sides is that one is in power, and the other, dying to replace the ones in power.

But that’s precisely the point, and the stepping-off point for determining how the screaming for or against an issue, pro or con in terms of any administration, should be viewed.

The harsh reality is that both the constitution and the law are stricter when it comes to government, than they are with those outside of government. There’s a reason why: Coercion.

The public has the power of coercion in only very limited cases: Fundamentally, it has it when the electorate goes to the polls. It can hire and fire officials. The public, too, can express its opinions in the media (if there’s press freedom), and through demonstrations (if unmolested by the military) and even in surveys. But outside elections, government can ignore the people. The people, however, can never ignore the government, because everyone’s day-to-day lives can be profoundly affected by whatever government is doing at any given time.

Government enjoys certain advantages that no other institution in our society has. It has the military and police under its command. It has a large bureaucracy, and access to a virtually unlimited source of income, the people’s taxes. It has elaborately-manned and generally obedient agencies tasked with information, intelligence gathering, data-management, and so forth. Therefore, an elaborate system of laws, beginning with the fundamental law, the constitution, ensures that the government can’t simply rule according to its whims, and with total disregard of either criticism, or opposition. The individual and non-governmental associations are guaranteed rights, while government is limited by a huge number of responsibilities.

Still, if there’s a will, there’s a way. Mao Zedong said power came out of the barrel of a gun — and by law, only the government has a permanent army. There’s an anonymous saying — whoever has the gold, makes the rules; and while there’s no shortage of individuals with lots of gold, the biggest gold-digger and owner of them all happens to be the government.

From June to September of last year, the Philippine Center for Investigate Journalism did a survey of advertisements placed for and against the administration. Their findings indicated that pro-administration ads accounted for about 22 million pesos in placements while anti-government ads totaled about 2 million pesos. Wrote the PCIJ, “Experts interviewed for the report said that the pro-Arroyo ads were apparently orchestrated, well-funded and clearly not spontaneous. The anti-GMA ads, on the other hand, were spotty, not very coherent and contained ‘too much pontification,’ which tended to turn people off. Government institutions and associations, such as the League of Municipalities, League of Cities and League of Provinces, were the biggest ad spender, followed by the ‘600 independent women of civil society.’”

None of these groups has rendered a public accounting of funds. It’s to be assumed that they spent funds they were entitled to spend, did not engage in any criminal behavior, and paid the appropriate taxes. They have a right to advocacy, after all. But not having been forthcoming with accounting, and certainly not having been shy about spending whatever amounts were necessary to get their message across, when other groups try the same thing, why should they then complain?

The president established an advocacy commission, tasked with barnstorming the country to lobby for changes to the constitution. That handpicked group has, in turn, an alliance with ostensibly non-governmental groups, such as the one calling itself “Sigaw ng Bayan.” Beyond pious assertions of honesty, no clear itemization of where either entity receives funds, who pays for it’s leaders’ trips, or the “assemblies” they conduct, has been published. Additional pious claims to integrity are all that critics and the curious receive, when they insist on answers.

And yet, proponents of amendments enjoy something no one else does, and that is, official support, from the president of the Philippines on down, no less. And armed with the prestige of presidential support, and naturally, full cooperation not just from the Executive but local governments, who is in a position to demand an accounting from them? Or perhaps because they enjoy official support, they are immune from any kind of official scrutiny!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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