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June 27, 2017

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President Aquino's speech tries to set the record straight

MANILA -- Philippine President Benigno Aquino III came out swinging at his political opponents and critics Wednesday night in a special televised address to the nation. But, reading the transcript of the president's speech more closely, I got the sense that it was a defensive response to Sen. Jinggoy Estrada's own privilege speech at the Senate last Sept. 25. The president might have thought that Estrada and the other accused lawmakers in the pork barrel scam had managed to confuse the public and divert media attention from the main issues.

Hence, the refrain recurring throughout the president's speech: The real issue here is theft of public funds. It is they who are charged with stealing, not us. It is they who must explain themselves to the public, not we. We did not steal, and we will not steal.

Though somewhat late, the president hoped that his intervention could shape the public debate on the pork barrel. Only time will tell if the public got his message. The occasion the president chose-a special address to the nation just before it went on a long break-lent the event an air of urgency that, as it turned out, the content of the speech itself did not warrant. Under the circumstances, the public expected to hear more, and it didn't. One can't help wondering if this is a sensible way of spending precious political capital.

At various points in his speech, the president sounded as if he were making a blanket defense of everyone in his administration or his political party. He seemed to be justifying the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) in its entirety, and offering a wholesale rationalization of all lump-sum funds under the control of the Office of the President. This way of talking might serve the ends of rhetoric, but it hardly serves to clarify issues. Indeed, the president's speech glossed over many important questions that have been begging for answers in the last three months.

On the (Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam: no one has accused Aquino himself of stealing or being dishonest. But, from the time the Department of Justice filed the first cases against opposition lawmakers, people have asked who would be next. Will the chips be allowed to fall where they may? Will any of the president's senior political allies, Cabinet members and undersecretaries, and heads of key government agencies ever be charged in connection with this scam? When can we expect a full report from the Commission on Audit and the Department of Budget and Management on how it was possible for so much public money from the PDAF and the Malampaya Fund to be stolen without detection for over a decade? COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan herself admitted at a Senate hearing: "There was a breakdown in the control system." What has been done to restore the integrity of the system? Are the implicated officials in these agencies being investigated? Finally, does the president really believe there's nothing wrong with using the PDAF as a tool of political patronage?

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