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Pork barrel issue: Palace not clear on dialogue’s objective

What does the planned Palace dialogue hope to achieve when President Aquino has vigorously defended the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and indicated his preference for keeping the graft-ridden pork barrel?

“What we need here are clarification and understanding that the Aquino administration is doing everything that needs to be done to deliver public service in the most effective way,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, who announced the nationwide dialogue in the face of public clamor to abolish the corruption-tainted pork barrel system.

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Coloma said the dialogue, which would involve Cabinet officials, would help “ensure an adequate understanding of the issues,” particularly on the DAP and the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

But as senators remained divided on what to do with the PDAF, Coloma expressed Malacañang’s preference for the course taken by the House of Representatives: Keep the congressional pork barrel fund—notwithstanding the fact that it has been a source of hefty kickbacks for lawmakers.

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This means that P25.4 billion in PDAF would remain in next year’s national budget but distributed among six departments. As in the old PDAF system, legislators would still have a say on which public works projects would be implemented, but with the amount limited to P9.654 billion.

The move was the congressmen’s response to Aquino’s Aug. 23 vow to “create a new mechanism to address the needs of your constituents and sectors, in a manner that is transparent, methodical and rational, and not susceptible to abuse or corruption.”

“What we want to happen is to ensure that the allocation of funds will be done in a way that there will be clear accountability and transparency on where it will be spent, and the proposal at the House, to me, addresses that concern,” Coloma on Monday told reporters in Filipino.

On Oct. 23, Aquino defended his move allowing legislators to pick projects for some P12.8 billion in DAP savings, quoting an “older politician” who purportedly once asked: “Who will remember you come election time?”

On the eve of Halloween, the President delivered a rare televised public address in defense of the DAP, claiming that those implicated in the P10-billion pork barrel scam were out to muddle the issue up and put his administration on the defensive.

Coloma said the pork barrel issue was “high on the national agenda” and that “the people have the right to fully understand everything that needs to be understood” on the matter.

Asked if the President would just end up making the public accept his position on the DAP and the pork barrel, he said: “If you say acceptance is part of it, then, definitely, the President would like our people to be able to understand and accept the programs of government … particularly on good governance.”

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Pressed on, Coloma later said the President was keeping an “open mind” in the face of the public outrage over the pork barrel system.

“The President is always willing to listen, and the President is willing to communicate,” he said. “The President has always been open to feedback from our people and to knowing their real sentiments.”

Despite the differences in opinion on the pork barrel and the DAP between the President and his critics, Coloma said the Palace was not viewing the issue “in terms of dead ends and deadlines.”

“It’s a continuing process and for as long as people are learning new things or for as long as people are willing to learn, then there is always an opportunity to reexamine positions, to reexamine perspectives, and perhaps to adopt new points of view,” he said.

In a statement issued on Monday, Miguel B. Varela, president of Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Aquino should continue using the DAP until the Supreme Court settled questions on its constitutionality.

“The first three years of the Aquino presidency saw the prudent use of the DAP for social and economic services. The disbursements were slow in the first year. But once the government straightened spending procedures, good governance delivered basic and urgent services to intended beneficiaries,” Varela said.

The Aquino administration’s “daang matuwid” program has been an inspiration for the business community, he said, and has paved the way for investor confidence to return and further improve as companies doing business in the Philippines have experienced a decline in incidences of corruption in public contracts and have seen funds assisting communities prevent natural disasters and quickly recover.

“There is still a long way to go to enlarging the economic pie for more to benefit from the wealth created in the economy, but we are going there if the government is consistent with taking the straight and narrow path,” Varela added.

The Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage) on Monday became the eighth petitioner to question in the Supreme Court the DAP, saying it violated the equal protection clause in the 1987 Constitution.

The court has scheduled oral arguments on the issue on Nov. 11.

In its 25-page petition for certiorari and mandamus, Courage said National Budget Circular No. 541 issued by the Department of Budget and Management to create the DAP violated Section 1, Article III of the Constitution.

“Equal protection of laws means that laws must be applied equally and it is erroneous to give preference to one person or class of persons over another,” the group said.

This was not applied in the DAP allocations to senators, it said, with some getting as high as P100 million while others, as low as P5 million. Sixteen senators were given DAP allocations while five others did not get them.

“As to why the senators were treated differently [with] regard [to] the amount of DAP that they received, with some receiving this much and some receiving nothing at all, respondents failed to give a credible explanation,” Courage said.—With reports from Amy R. Remo and Christine O. Avendano

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