The Volatilian™ View

Senate or Clown House?

Philippine Senator Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes
Philippine Senator Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes

You’d think after his recent excruciatingly embarrassing performance some nine days ago on BBC’s Hard Talk programme – in which he looked like a pupil who’d come ill-prepared for an oral exam; evidently, he thought he’d just wing it – Philippine senator, Antonio Trillanes IV (photo), would have wanted to lie low for a while. Not him – to the contrary, he needed to get back in the glare of the spotlight.

Any discomfort he might have felt from being constantly stumped by interviewer Stephen Sackur throughout that half-hour show disappeared like water off a duck’s back. The chances are he’d forgotten all about it even before he’d removed the studio make-up.

… Duterte, a man Trillanes loathes with the same passion he normally reserves for notions of his own political virility.
Besides which, he hadn’t been in the headlines properly since. Possibly he was starting to get media withdrawal; a debilitating condition for anyone who craves personal publicity as much as Trillanes does.

His latest publicity-seeking binge saw him lambasting his Senate colleagues as “cowards” and “puppets” and “lapdogs of the administration” – that’s the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, a man Trillanes loathes with the same passion he normally reserves for notions of his own political virility.

“The Senate which is the bastion of democracy is no more … We don’t engage in investigation anymore. Here you can find senators who have no courage. They must admit it…they are afraid because they are allies of Duterte, “ he said.

Not having ‘the courage’ to mention any senator by name himself, Trillanes’s outburst managed to infuriate a number of his fellows. “Calling one’s own colleagues ‘cowards’ or ‘puppets’ wholesale and without qualifying, is the darndest thing he can do,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson in a text message to the press.

Senate Majority Leader, Vicente Sotto III, said “I do not know his reasons for saying that,” while cautioning: “He should be careful in calling us names”.

‘The bastion of democracy’, though, is precisely what the Senate is supposed to represent. In that Trillanes is right. But the Senate is also meant to be a place for considered and well-argued debate where the formal rules and procedures of deliberative assemblies are adhered to as part of normal parliamentary etiquette. And cursing fellow congressmen as ‘cowards’ and ‘lapdogs’ is certainly not covered by that definition.

We don’t know if those entering the Senate have to undergo some form of induction course, but surely they’re made acquainted with the protocols of the chamber. Don’t they have some sort of guide; something easy to read, maybe with pictures?

All that’s missing are the red noses, the ginger wigs and the spinning bowties.

Trillanes and only a few others thankfully – custody-serving alleged drugs profiteer, Leila De Lima springs to mind – treat the halls of the legislature like a brawler’s yard; a place for a bare-knuckle fight. Loudness and bravado seem to have eclipsed decorum and rational argument as their preferred mode of political interaction. No wonder the people have so little respect for the institution when members are allowed to give full vent to their pathological Dutertephobia.

Like escapees from the Clown House, they’ve managed to turn the floor of the Senate into a three-ringed circus of shallow arguments, confrontational politics and emotional displays. All that’s missing are the red noses, the ginger wigs and the spinning bowties.

These aren’t parliamentarians by any normal measure; they’re more like slap-stick artists or music hall turns. What they’re missing is that the people don’t want to be entertained by their representatives – they want to be represented by them; not watch them representing themselves in some irksome theatre of the ridiculous.

Of course, what Trillanes was hoping to do with his latest emotional outburst was to draw attention once more to Duterte’s alleged links to extrajudicial killings allegedly connected to both the president’s time as mayor of Davao City and during the past 12 months of his War on Drugs.

So far, attempts by Trillanes and his political cronies to censure Duterte have failed ignominiously.  A couple of months back, two impeachment complaints filed in the House of Representatives were summarily rejected by the House Justice Committee for having insufficient substance – much like Trillanes’s hard-to-watch Hard Talk half hour.

Efforts to get the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands to take any interest in a complaint filed there – a complaint that alleges Duterte is guilty of crimes against humanity; nothing less – has also fallen flat on its face.

In fact Trillanes’s only success in venting his anger over Duterte has been courtesy of the anti-Duterte media – though, after the Hard Talk farce, even some of them might be starting to wonder how editorially sound it is to be having Trillanes on a news loop speaking from an echo chamber. There’s a limit to how often the same story can be run, even for them. After about the 100th time of hearing it, it starts to get a little monotonous.

But getting back to Trillanes’s apparent media-attention addiction, press-dependency is an insidious condition. Politicians and socialites (certainly not always mutually exclusive in the Philippines) and wannabe celebrities are the demographic most at risk. Once hooked, they find it almost impossible to kick the habit.

… members grandstanding, playing to the gallery, in blatant attempts to score political points; or acting out like attention-seekers in search of narcissistic supply. 
As far as we know there’s no 12-step programme – no Limelighters Anonymous – that can help people like Trillanes. He’d have to go cold turkey and for a man whose driven by a machismo the size of Mindanao, that’s a tall order.

It seems, however, we’re not the only ones to have picked up on this. Lacson in his response to Trillanes’s unseemly attack said this: “I don’t know where he is coming from and I’m not even sure if he is still rationale in his thinking … He is out of touch with reality, if not hallucinating too much”.

Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III it was also in no doubt of Trillanes’s craving for media attention. His reported response to the maverick senator’s claims was this: “Heard that before a number of times. Why revive it just for him [Trillanes] to be in the news?”

The problem, though, is that it is in the news, while what should be is that the Congress is spending its precious time dealing with critical legislative issues – much-needed reforms. But then how can it when so much time is wasted by members grandstanding, playing to the gallery, in blatant attempts to score political points; or acting out like attention-seekers in search of narcissistic supply.

According to the Senate’s Legislative Bills and Index Service, between July 2015 and last Wednesday when the first regular session of the 17th Congress was concluded, a total of 1,487 bills were filed by the 24 senators. Of those, progress has been made on just 241, meaning that they’ve received first, second or third readings. And that’s in 10 months.

At that rate – assuming no other bills came along – to get the remaining 1,246 even to the stage of the others would take another 52 months. From the time Congress resumes on 25 July, that would take us to December 2021, just six months before the end of Duterte’s presidential term. And in the pipeline right now are some really big Bills – legislation for critical comprehensive tax-reform, utilisation of the Coconut Levy Fund, a unified national identification system, and a National Transport Act among them.

Of course, we know lawmakers will make greater progress than that – though unfinished legislation is a characteristic of all administrations. But what it illustrates is how precious Congress’s time is. It also highlights the need for legislators to keep to the job of legislating and not use Congress – the Senate in particular – as a boxing gym.

The people who elected them deserve that at the very least – leaving aside the spectacle which self-serving, one-track partisan politicians present to the public.

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