People’s Initiative vs. Pork Barrel: Salvagable?

By Jego Ragragio , as originally posted on Blog Watch, Philippine Online Chronicles.

August 25, 2014 came and went, and the Luneta gathering to kick off the People’s Initiative Against “Pork Barrel” has come to pass. I figured I’d allow a week or two for things to simmer and cook, to see if indeed the People’s Initiative to “scrap pork barrel” would gain traction, as well as look out for other developments.

The first thing I noticed is that after Aug. 25, social media clamor in support of the People’s Initiative vanished faster than Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked private photos disappeared from the Internet. A cursory hashtag search for #SignUpVsPork on Twitter shows that as of Sept. 2, 11:30 PM, the use of the hashtag has been reduced to a mere trickle of one or two tweets a day. By comparison, in the weeks and days leading up to Aug. 25, they were all over social media and even mainstream media, clamoring for signatures and support, claiming the Luneta gathering would be huge.

I guess we have vastly differing thresholds for “huge.”

Rally convenors claim to have had up to 40,000 attendees, of which they were able to gather 10,000 signatures from throughout Metro Manila. This leads me to my second observation: Going by the word of the rally convenors and assuming, for the sake of argument, that indeed they managed to garner an attendance of up to 40,000, that means only a fourth of the attendees affixed their signature to the sign-up sheets. So what did the other 30,000 people do? Watch Kamikazee live?

Speaking of celebrities. At some point, on the day itself, it seemed as if the focus of the related tweets and news bits was not so much how many people were arriving, or how many people were affixing their signatures onto the People’s Initiative, but rather who was arriving at Luneta in support of the initiative. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that they were trying to create some kind of bandwagon effect using the names and personalities supporting the People’s Initiative, rather than rely on the strength of the validity, nobility, and moral ascendancy of the People’s Initiative itself, regardless of who supports it.

But back to the dismal attendance. Even if we assume a more reasonable, in-between number of 15,000 – 20,000 attendees (as the PNP gave an estimated peak attendance of only 5,000), the question remains: why didn’t all of the attendees sign the People’s Initiative?

A number of people – journalists, commentators, and legal minds alike – have analyzed the bill being proposed by this People’s Initiative, and the consensus seems to be that it has major flaws. A more thorough, detailed discussion on these issues is forthcoming, but suffice to say that if even ordinary citizens can see gaping holes in the proposals being pushed in this People’s Initiative, then this Initiative is in for a bumpy ride indeed.

Interestingly, the proponents of the People’s Initiative point to the support of retired Chief Justice Puno as well as the Integrated Bar of the Philippines to buttress the claim that the bill is legally sound. With all due respect to these practitioners of law, this appeal to expertise seems strange, given that this is a People’s Initiative, not an Experts’ Initiative. If The People, mostly non-lawyers, read the bill and say, “No, thanks, I think there are problems in it,” isn’t that an entirely valid position to take? Why, then, should the opinion of an expert in law weigh heavier than the opinion of an ordinary citizen, when as far as the law is concerned, each vote in favor of or against the proposed measure is the same?

The relatively dismal showing at Luneta a few weeks ago, both in the attendance  and in the number of signatures they managed to get, should give the people behind the People’s Initiative cause for concern. I wrote last year about how the movement behind the Million People March veered off-course as early as October last year. Today, a year later, we can now see the effects of the direction this movement took: a virtual gutting of its popular support – from an estimated 400,000 to only a fraction of that number at 40,000 maximum –  and its reduction to a loose coalition of vapid PNoy critics from both the private sector as well as the political opposition. It is a movement that is a far, far cry from the original Million People March, in scope, in breadth, and in depth.

A year ago, people flocked to Luneta in indignation at how public money was siphoned into private pockets. The people’s presence was itself the message:  Enough is enough, government, time to shape up! But a few weeks ago, the “unified” message was, “Sign Up vs Pork,” but the message on the ground couldn’t have been more confusing. The only indications that there was a People’s Initiative seeking to abolish “pork barrel” were the sign-up tents themselves. Beyond that, we had:

  • References to the DAP controversy, which is only tangentially related to PDAF and “pork barrel,” and making all those involved accountable;
  • Comparisons between President Aquino, the late President Marcos, and Adolf Hitler – proving that you *can* violate Joker’s Law (referring to Joker Arroyo and his penchant for making irrelevant and inappropriate comparisons to Marcos) and Godwin’s Law at the same time; and
  • References to the recently-junked impeachment complaints, as well as vague allusions to removing President Aquino from power (for example, “IBAGSAK ANG REHIMENG PORK BARREL KING!” or some such sloganeering); and
  • A free concert (who doesn’t like free concerts?).

Among other generally unrelated messages. If this movement itself is confused as to where it wants to go and what it wants to say, then how can it convince the public at large of the sincerity and integrity of the measure it seeks to enact into law?

If this People’s Initiative is to succeed, then its proponents must get their act together. They need to focus on their Unity Statements and keep their member groups in line, to stick to that statement and bring their other irrelevant issues to some other forum. They need to go back to the fundamentals behind the proposed bill and answer these questions, among others:

  • Why is “pork barrel” defined the way it is? How is it similar or different from how the Supreme Court has defined “pork barrel” in Belgica v. Executive Secretary?
  • Why are only legislative and executive forms of pork barrel included? Why are the Supreme Court’s JDF and local government appropriation ordinances, both possibly falling within the definition of “pork barrel,” excluded?
  • What are the benefits to the country in abolishing pork barrel? Are there any possible drawbacks in such an abolition?
  • How does the proposed bill seek to realize the benefits identified above?

Cleaning an organizing their own house, they may yet salvage this People’s Initiative and prove the detractors wrong.