Archive for February, 2008

The House of Representatives Must Make a Stand

Posted in Governance, Politics and Politicians with tags , , , on February 12, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

Privilege Speech I Delivered during the Plenary Session of February 12, 2008

Mr. Speaker,

When a person seeks protection, human nature dictates that he will seek protection and refuge from those whom he trusts with his life, those who can guarantee him that he doesn’t have to keep looking behind him, fearful of an attack from behind, or he can go wherever he wants without anyone blocking his path and stopping him in his tracks. He seeks to distance himself from those who may have the desire to inflict bodily harm or, as somebody said, prematurely cause his respiratory system to cease functioning.

When in the company of strangers especially during a time when you feel you are under threat, fear is understandably your overwhelming emotion, to the point where you will do anything just to escape that dreaded feeling and physical condition.

This is what Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada experienced last week.

As he was coming home from a trip abroad, he felt there was a need to seek sanctuary and therefore arranged that he be met at the airport by the people he trusted most in his life—his family. It is but natural for people to put their family on the top of their most trusted list. After all, his siblings and his wife will undoubtedly be the people least likely to harm him. After a sudden, unplanned trip abroad, it would have been a welcome relief for him to be back home in the safe and loving arms of his family.

It is no wonder then that when he was met by unidentified men he initially refused to go with them and instead insisted that he first meet with his family who were waiting just beyond the immigration counters, along with a team of the Senate Sergeant at Arms. But in spite of his protestations, he was herded away from his family, even taking an evasive maneuver by going to the Departure Area then taking an elevator down to the tarmac.

The way Lozada was intercepted and picked up at the airport goes against regular procedures in the airport. It is a circumvention of security and administrative procedures, procedures that even members of the House of Representatives are not immune from. The breach of airport protocols and procedures that transpired was brazen enough to come after the Philippines was downgraded by the Federal Aviation Authority for its security lapses.

Mr. Lozada has already testified under oath that he did not arrange to be fetched from the airport in the said manner. He said he was surprised at the appearance of men meeting him just outside the door of the aircraft, since he was expecting that it will be his family who will pick him up.

Mr. Lozada said that he did not know the persons who fetched him. He further said that he did not know where he was being taken and thoughts of the Bubby Dacer abduction and killing entered his mind when, after going around parts of Metro Manila, they reached Cavite.

Although his cell phone was not taken away from him, he was instructed not to use it, along with a warning that his phone conversations were being intercepted.

To simplify it, Mr. Lozada did not feel comfortable in the company of the men who picked him up from the airport. First, his arrangement was for his family to pick him up. Second, unidentified men picked him up and brought him to places that he did not intend to go. Third,

his private communications was being monitored. He was forced into a situation which he did not desire to be in.

Those involved in this caper to take him out of the radar screen tried to explain the whole incident as simply a mission to place Mr. Lozada in their protection. But the testimony of the person who is supposed to be protected, Mr. Lozada, reveals that it was more than just a mission to protect. It was a mission to isolate Mr. Lozada even from members of his own family, which was contrary to his desire.

The circumstances makes it a forced disappearance, although temporary.

In a democracy the we love so much, there is no room for such practice, especially if perpetrated by agents of government. And this is not just limited to the act of physically isolating a person by means of force or aggressive persuasion, but tolerance of the practice makes one equally guilty as the one who forces another person to disappear.

It is in this light that I stand today to bring this matter to the attention of this House. We cannot simply stand in silence and be an observer as agents of government trample on another Filipino’s rights, violate established rules and procedures of government and try to get away with it with a conspiracy of stories riddled with inconsistencies.

As an institution that is supposed to be the People’s bastion of representation, it is incumbent upon this House to act on such incursions into the people’s rights, and the disregard for government’s own rules and procedures.

Do not get me wrong. I am not asking this House to conduct its own investigation into the revelations of Mr. Lozada about the ZTE Broadband Deal. The Senate’s investigation is already colorful and animated as it is, so I think there is no need for us to put up our own show.

But I do think that we cannot sit idly and be silent spectators to what is already obvious as blunders by government agencies. To do so would be a contradiction to the spoken desire of this House for change and reform. A new leadership was overwhelmingly put into place by the members of this House and the mandate given was for the reform of the House and the rehabilitation of its image.

The sagging image of the House was repeatedly cited as one of the reasons for change. Before us now is the golden opportunity for us to show the people that indeed, we have changed. It is the opportunity for us to show the people that we will not tolerate wrongdoing and that we stand for their interests, not ours.

The least we can do is to have a position on the matter as an institution, not as individuals. We must express outrage, at the most, or concern, at the least, about the way that Mr. Lozada was spirited away against his wishes and kept incommunicado from the world and his family.

If the people will see that their House of Representatives will stand up for the rights of Mr. Lozada, it will surely give them hope that if ever the strong arm of government comes crashing down on them, they have an institution that they can rely on. An institution that upholds the people’s interests far above its own, an institution that has a will, conviction and principles of its own, an institution that will not hesitate to defend what is right and condemn what is wrong.

The plight of the Filipino people is summed up in one of the exchanges between a senator and the Chief of the Philippine National Police during the hearing in the Senate. The senator asked, “Kanino ba magsusumbong ang isang tao na natatakot sa pulis?”. The Chief of the PNP said, “Sa pulis din.”

One could actually taste the sense of futility and desperation of the people who heard that.

Many times we have heard horror stories of agents of government abusing the rights of the people. Where will the people turn to? Is it any comfort for us to hear that the people might not even think of the House of Representatives as an institution that they can turn to? We all know and acknowledge that the House has a not so ideal image as far as the public is concerned.

But as I said, this is a golden opportunity for us to redeem our image. Let us stand and be heard by those concerned. Let it be known that the House of Representatives represents the interest of the people. Let it be known that we can cross the lines of partisan politics and stand together for what is right and stand against what is wrong.

Mr. Lozada and his family has emphatically said that what transpired was against their desire and will. Of course, the PNP Chief and some other government officials deny it. They have given many explanations although the doubt still lingers. But who is the best person to say whether an abduction was committed than the person who was abducted? Of course the PNP will say otherwise, because to agree to it would be to admit a wrong doing on their part. What it boils down to is that their explanations are but a defense to the accusations against them.

Again, I reiterate that I am not calling for an investigation by the House of Representatives. There is already an ongoing investigation in the Senate and we do not need to confuse the people with our own inquiry into the matter.

What this representation is seeking is a statement by the House as an institution expressing its concern over the matter of government agents going against established procedures and taking into their custody a person against his will.

I shall file a resolution expressing that sense of the House of Representatives and enjoin the members of this House to support the same. Let this not be a matter of administration or opposition, majority or minority, or first term, second term or third term. Let this be a matter that will unite us on what is for the people and what is against the people.

Thank you very much.


The Vote for the Speaker of the House

Posted in Governance, Politics and Politicians with tags , , , , on February 5, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

Last night (up to the early hours of the following day), the House of Representatives voted to remove Speaker Jose De Venecia from the post he has held an unprecedented five times. His removal was a whirlwind affair, happening just four session days after the resumption of session following the Christmas break of Congress.

After De Venecia’s son, Joey, exposed the alleged bribery in the ZTE Broadband Project, which, Joey alleged, involved the President’s husband, there was talk about his removal late last year, although it did not happen. Rumors had it that the ouster would be effected upon the resumption after Christmas. Indeed, it was fueled when Presidential son Cong. Mikey Arroyo filed a leave of absence from the Lakas Party this January.

A few days before the session resumed, both sides, the pro- and anti-JDV camps, conducted meetings one after the other. Some congressmen gave commitments early while some attended meetings on both sides. Signatures on manifestos were gathered, and there are even reports of congressmen signing on manifestos from both sides.

Both sides claimed they had the numbers and for a time, it was seen as a bluffing game. But it became clearer after the majority caucus held in Malacanang. It was a make or break caucus for JDV, where he was expecting (probably more accurately, hoping) that the President would step in and advise everyone to uphold the status quo.

According to information I gathered, the President instead tried to craft a set of procedures on how the showdown would happen, which was seen by others as the final nail on the coffin of JDV’s Speakership. On its face, it is a neutral act, but Congressmen saw it as a withdrawal of support from JDV and a blessing to the initiative of her sons to oust the Speaker.

After the adjournment of that caucus, word already spread out among congressmen about the position of the president and as expected, tides began to turn in favor of Cong. Prospero Nograles. The two camps held meetings after the caucus, the JDV camp in Rembrandt Hotel and the Nograles camp in Luk Foo, a Chinese restaturant near Congress.

There, the numbers and warm bodies were finally seen. At around 3:30 PM, thirty minutes before session was to begin, there were 47 congressmen in Rembrandt and 123 in Luk Foo. 121 votes were needed to oust De Venecia.

Jose De Venecia’s fate was sealed.

Where did I stand in all this?

When the initiative to oust JDV and the counter-moves against it began to heat up, I began to carefully and thorughly review the position I would have to take. I would have to consider my personal conviction and conscience, the position of my party, the effect of all this on the House of Representatives as an institution, the views of my constituents and the impact on my district.

But instead of attending the meetings that were called by both sides, I decided to isolate myself from those meetings. There were talks of financial consideration being offered to congressmen to take sides. I didn’t want my decision to be tainted by that, whether it was true or not. The fact is, talk was going around, and it is enough to stain the integrity of one’s decision if one is linked to it.

I consulted with my partymates as to what position the party will take. I believe that political parties should be strenghthened and one way to do that is to uphold party principles and discipline.

But in the end, I did not follow the party stand. My party decided to support the ouster of Speaker De Venecia.

President Manuel L. Quezon in the past said, “my loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins”. It is an admired often-quoted statement, seen as the height of patriotism and idealism. But with all due respect to the late President and his admirers, I have a contrary view. The statement connotes that the political party comes first, before the country. It is my firm belief that the country should come first before the political party. That the first consideration is the interest of the country before the interest of the party.

So for me, my loyalty to the country goes above my loyalty to the party. That before considering the interests of the party, it take full consideration of the interests of the country.

It is my belief that the stand my party took was against what my convictions told me was for the good of the country.

I believed that the ouster move was not motivated by a desire for change and reform in the House. It was never a secret that the primary movers of this move were the two sons of the President, who were hurt by the testimony of JDV’s son Joey against their father regarding the ZTE scandal.

In the House, congressmen complain about JDV’s tendency to make promises and not make good on them, but there wasn’t any drive to remove him from office because of this. Issues about transparency in the House expenses were raised, but nobody ever really made a move to scrutinize them. During the budget deliberations, where the golden opportunity to ask questions about the House budget is there for everyone to take, no one grabbed it. The Commission on Audit annual report on House expenses is always ready for anyone interested to go over and review.

Some have said that the Speaker was responsible for the plummeting ratings and deplorable image of the House. But the House of Representatives is a collective body. The Speaker is said to be only the First Among Equals. The image of the House is the responsibility not only of the SPeaker but by all congressmen as individuals and the entire House as an institution. Even if we have a Speaker with impeccable character, if a majority of congressmen still abuse their power, act arrogantly in their distrcits, involve themselves in questionable deals and transactions and perform their duties poorly, the House will remain a house of ill repute. It can be redeemed through extra spending in publicity and public relations, but those will never reform the House.

I have due respect and admiration for him as a colleague, but Cong. Nograles couldn’t have made it on his own. As the current head of the House contingent on the Commission on Appointments during this Congress, he is often not in the House, understandably because of his duties as head of the contingent. For the past months of the 14th Congress, he was concentrated on his duty instead of campaigning for change and reform in the House. Besides, going for the Speakership involves the mobilizing resources which I don’t think he has on his own. It had to take someone else with more clout and resources to organize and convince the congressmen to support him.

For me to be inspired to follow a particular leader, I must first see what prospects he has to offer in terms of service, advocacy, and in this case, the program for reform and change. As I said, there was never a campaign for reform and change. When I say campaign, it is not enough to say “I want reform” or “I want change”. To advocate for reform and change, one must specify what specifically you want to reform and change, how you are going to go about that change, the exact change you are going to do and the expected results of that change. In that way, your progress or success is measurable and quantifiable. That is accountability.

But there was no such presentation. While meetings were held with the different parties and groups, for me, it is not transparent and accountable. For example, they may have met with the Liberal Party and presented their plans, but who knows what commitments were made? Who knows if what was committed to the Liberal Party was different from what was committed to the Nacionalista Party? Or the NPC?

Most of all, how will the Filipino people know what commitments were made? The Speakership is not just about who will preside over the sessions of the House or who adminsters the affairs of the House. It is about the fourth highest leader of the land, the person who will steer the policy-making body of this country and ensure that the right and necessasry laws are passed. The Filipino people have the right to know how that person intends to perform his duty as Speaker fo the House. Ask yourself–have you heard what Congressman Nograles plans to do to reform the House?

In my explanation of vote I said I wished there was more time for the contenders to present their platforms. Not just to us congressmen but also to the people. After all, after I vote, I would have to let my constituents understand why i voted that way. It would have been better if they heard directly from those vying for the position to make their commitments public so that if a time comes that we have to remove him, people will understand why.

This is one reason why people think that this leadership issue in the house is all about a power grab, political vendetta or maneuvering. Because when Speaker De Venecia was elected, the people did not know what commitments he made in order to win the seat. So when congressmen claim that they want change and reform, the people do not know what they mean. To make the same mistake with a new Speaker is not change and reform. It is more of the same.

It turns out that the primary motivation is for JDV to be “punished” for the “sins” of his son. But the Bible says “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16). It is true in the matters of faith. It is also applicable in the world of politics. In the case of JDV, he had been a faithful and loyal ally of the President, rushing to her rescue during her most troubled times. He was instrumental in her rise to power and crucial in retaining it. When his son started to speak against his ally, JDV tried to control the situation.

But Joey is a man of his own and appears to be a man of conviction. Just as I would stand up for my convictions even against the advice of my father. That’s how convictions are supposed to be—solid as a rock (just make sure that your convictions are in the right place). Even the Arroyo brothers exhibited that. They claim that their actions are their own not affected by their mother’s position on the matter.

I don’t think the Speakership is the appropriate arena for the meting out of this “punishment” of Cong. De Venecia. The House should be an independent institution, whose affairs are determined by the members themselves, in the interest of the performance of their duties. Joey De Venecia’s behavior has nothing to do with the House so the House members should not be dragged into the fray.

Some congressmen say that their decision is their own and not on the influence or say-so of anyone else. But the explanations of their votes reveal the what’s behind the decision. Several times explanations tell of their decisions being “to protect the interests of my district” or “to ensure the continuance of projects in my district”. Why the seeming fear of projects in their district being affected? The Speaker has nothing to do with projects in their district. The Speaker’s role is to be the administrator of the House of Representatives and not the implementation or release of funds in the congressional districts. That’s the role of the Executive Department headed by the President. Why do they fear? Is there a threat to their projects?

Some congressmen voted to remove JDV “with a heavy heart”. That means that their decision does not conform to their desires and conscience. Becuase if a decision you make is in accordance to your convictions and conscience, you would be at peace. That’s the effect of making the right decision…it will not bother you. So if it’s not their own decision, whose is it?

I voted against the motion to remove JDV because I felt that the one contending his post did not have enough time to present his program of reform and change. He was not able to present make a commitment to the public, something that is essential to accountability. The House was rushed into a vote.

In addition to that, I believed that we were doing it for the wrong motivation. It wasn’t a compelling drive for reform in the House of Representatives (although I must admit we need to reform the House). It so happened that this particular initiative was driven by a desire to get back at JDV for his son’s decisions.

I went against my party stand because I felt that it’s decision to support the move was against the convictions I had. There are other reasons which are best reserved for meetings within the Liberal Party.

In this realm of politics, it is sometimes difficult to say who is right or who is wrong. Everyone can come up with their own justifications for their actions. All it takes is a creative mind and skillful writing. But in the end, the benchmark for a right or wrong decision is a clear conscience. If you can live with your decision without feeling a “heavy heart” or fear of reprisal or contrary comment, then you must have made the right decision. Your next accountability will be to God, if your decision conforms to His Will. After all, “everyone shall be put to death for their own sin”.