Sleight of hand

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IF there is one thing the Aquino administration is adept at, it is distracting public attention from potentially embarrassing situations. Like practiced magicians, the President and his men will point at an issue and stir up outrage to divert attention away from what they seek to conceal.

 

In this regard, the administration has plenty of help from the conscript press, which often serves as a willing extension of the Palace propaganda machine.

Consider the lessons of the alleged pork barrel scam, which continues to divert our attention away from the secrets buried in the administration’s P2.268-trillion budget proposal for 2014.

In the second week of July, a newspaper famous for brown-nosing the President broke a story that alleged that senators and congressmen had funneled their pork barrel to non-existent projects in exchange for kickbacks. Suspiciously, the allegations involved only critics of the administration, and the source of the accusations was dubious, at best. The allegations also referred to P10 billion in funds diverted – but provided no specific breakdown of the projects involved, or how these totaled P10 billion.

As if on cue, the President’s usual hatchet men and women – Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda — took turns over the succeeding days in confirming that the administration took the charges seriously. No, they didn’t seem interested in investigating any administration allies, but they would certainly question the opposition lawmakers implicated.

With public discussion still roiling over the alleged pork barrel scam, the other shoe fell about a scant 10 days later. The message that the President included with his five-volume budget proposal was clear: troublesome lawmakers would no longer be able to specify projects for their pork and would instead have to choose from a menu of Palace-approved projects already incorporated into the budget.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad pitched this as an innovation, calling it a “budget-as-release” document, but it was clear the Palace’s real intention was to seize control of the P27 billion allocation for pork.

Was the Palace merely reacting to the pork barrel expose, or did they know about it from the start? The fact that the Executive department already wrote in all the pork projects into the five-volume budget released just 10 days after the expose – not a simple feat – suggests the latter, and that the Palace was using the allegations of wrongdoing as a bludgeon to browbeat the lawmakers into accepting the new pork regime.

Beyond pork, there are more budget issues that the Palace most likely prefers would stay hidden. These include lump-sum allocations of P120 billion for pensions and gratuities and P449.95 billion for the “Special Purpose Fund” – belying the Budget secretary’s claims of greater transparency.

There are also issues of the Executive encroaching on the fiscal autonomy of the Judiciary, a move that cuts into the fabric of our system of checks and balances and the notion that it is a good thing to have co-equal branches of government.

But none of this is as sexy as a good corruption scandal, and this administration has proved it knows how to shovel dirt.

So prepare to be distracted by the Palace’s sleight of hand. Greater sins will be committed while we are looking away. (Manila Standard)