Sunday, September 23, 2007

No Excuse

Inquirer Editorial
Last updated 02:04am (Mla time) 09/23/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- Haste makes waste -- and lays waste to the cause of good government. It was with apparent haste that reporters were summoned yesterday to hear Trade Secretary Peter Favila and acting Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera announce the latest instructions from the President: Both the ZTE deal and the Cyber Education Project have been suspended.

This is like the President saying, at 4:40 in the afternoon, she’s issued a decree ordering the sun to set later in the day. Of course, there will be a sunset, but only a fool would attribute it to the President. But the Palace obviously thinks there are plenty of fools. For only foolish minds would confuse the President’s instructions with anything substantial. What has put the ZTE deal on hold took place prior to the President’s issuing her instructions. The deal was put on hold, and remains on hold, because of a TRO issued by the Supreme Court.

Therefore it really doesn’t matter at all, what the President’s instructions are—even with regard to the Cyber Education Project, which we already predicted will be the next focus of congressional and public inquiry. So the obvious thing here is, this is a public relations move, but it does not affect basic government policy.

And we say haste lays waste to good government, because pressed on what government intended to do next, and why the administration suddenly reversed itself on two huge projects, the two secretaries were at a loss for words. Favila simply stated the President told them what to say. Devanadera, obviously less politically suave, then told the media that the ZTE deal was legally defensible; Favila then told the media that the President’s decision was triggered by “bad publicity”—see how it’s basically a PR move?

The question then becomes, will the President’s weekend attempt to take credit for an act of the Supreme Court be enough to defuse tensions? Will it be enough, for example, to maintain the brittle peace within her ruling coalition? Could it stop a potentially explosive Senate hearing on Wednesday, where former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri is due to testify under oath?

Newsbreak has put forward this version of events. The Comelec chair, its report says, approached then Neda chief Neri for “help” with the ZTE deal. Neri replied he’d take a look. Abalos, the report says, took this to mean Neri wasn’t interested, so he quickly said, “There’s 200 for you here.” Neri asked what he meant. Abalos allegedly replied, “200 million.” End of conversation.

Neri, the report says, then went to the President and told her about the offer. When Neri told her that he refused it, the President supposedly told him to forget the money but to approve the deal. Two days later, Neri was removed from the National Economic and Development Authority.

This is a version of events that requires investigation. With both Abalos and Neri scheduled to appear before the Senate, now, more than ever, the hearings should proceed.

The administration pulled out all the stops to try to deflect attention and reduce the focus on the NBN controversy, using fair means and foul. Everything and everyone—from presidential daughter Evangeline “Luli” Arroyo’s display of cattiness, to the AFP chief of staff’s blowhard statements of a destabilization plot and how martial law is a necessary tool in government’s legal arsenal, to this, the latest clumsy move by the President— have been tried.

The Senate then must ponder if it wants to be an accomplice to this effort to sweep things under the rug, or if it will pull the rug out from under the feet of some extremely nervous officials. The President said the ZTE contract would be suspended—“no ifs, ands or buts.” What there should be no ifs, ands or buts about is that the public interest requires a continuation of the Senate hearings.

The hearings themselves, after all, not only subject executive officials to much-needed public scrutiny, they also put the senators under the microscope. This can only be healthy for the body politic. This is what public accountability is all about. May we remind the President of one of her favorite expressions: “Let the chips fall where they may.”

Even at the very desk of the President of the Philippines, if necessary.

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