Yesterday, in one of the most disgraceful acts of government secrecy – in a country famed for that sort of rotten behaviour – 25 members of the Philippine Congress, sitting as the Commission on Appointments (CA), failed to confirm Judy Taguiwalo (photo) as head of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a single member of that unaccountable Star Chamber-like court who’ll admit to denying her the role. In fact, every interview that’s been aired so far would suggest she had tremendous support within the CA. Given what they’ve had to say, it’s hard to imagine how she was found to be “unfit” for the job. Now it seems, everyone who was party to this decision has washed their hands of it. Like Pontius Pilates, they want no part of it.
That, of course, is the sort of double-dealing we’ve come to expect from Philippine legislators when they’re put on he spot. That sham hearing, however – an object lesson in stealth and the machinations of murky politics – will leave a very bitter taste among the electorate for some time to come. And we can expect a backlash.
CA members know that; hence their glowing testimonials of Taguiwalo now that they’ve removed her. What’s evident is that their superb ability to speak out of both sides of their mouth is only matched by their supreme negligence in doing what they were supposed to do – find the best candidate for the position. And, judging from those glowing post-vote testimonials, they were in little doubt who that was.
The reasons for their decision will never be officially disclosed. In the words of CA chairman, Joel Almario, “We don’t have to be accountable to the public for our decision”. And it’s lucky for them they don’t, given the anger now brewing in the country.
This wasn’t an attempt to genuinely vet Taguiwalo on her competence to run the DSWD – she’s already more than proved that over the past year, dealing professionally and decisively with an array of natural disasters while proving to be one of the most committed welfare secretaries dedicated to address the problems of the country’s wretched poor.
So let’s call it what it was – a political witch hunt; a mock hearing which had been prejudicial from the start. Frankly, CA members could have made this same decision months ago. In fact in private they had. They’d already decided to reject Taguiwalo’s appointment – have no doubt about that. All they did yesterday was to go through the motions, as they put on their sickening two-hour display of examination and appraisal. The rubber stamp was already inked; they just needed to appear to be evaluating the candidate.
But do they really believe they fooled anyone with that farce of an enquiry? Seven senators so far have come forward to stand before the cameras and explain, hand on heart, how they backed Judy Taguiwalo. But after the sham they took part in no-one’s going to believe them anyway.
Vote counting of the behind-closed-doors, anonymous ballot was halted once 13 ‘No’ votes – denoting a majority – had been tabulated. But why should those votes be secret? Surely, legislators should have the confidence of their convictions and be prepared to state why they voted one way or another. Stand by their individual decisions. Isn’t that part of public accountability? Isn’t that precisely the sort of transparency they claim they want to see across the spectrum of politics?
The fact is, the CA decision is not a big mystery. One reason why members refused to confirm Taguiwalo’s appointment had absolutely nothing to do with her ability to do the job and everything to do with her Left-leaning political persuasion. And for these blinkered, one-dimensional-thinking legislators, they couldn’t get beyond that. It wouldn’t have mattered if she’d already solved the problems of poverty in the country, they still wouldn’t have given her the job.
The other reason was her principled stand against what amounts to kick-back payments for legislators. In August, she issued a memorandum which effectively halted the extraordinary practice by which members of Congress gain favoured projects from her agency.
Her circular stated that referral letters from public officials were no longer integral to the implementation of the agency’s Protective Services Program, and as such not binding on DSWD personnel. In short it gave her agency the sole authority to determine the beneficiaries of its own projects. Effectively, it cut-out any middle-man dealings by members of Congress. Commission of Disappointment
Now that, for any opportunistic member of the legislature, would be an even bigger incentive to turn down Taguiwalo’s appointment than any political bent she may have. Money, after all, as we’ve seen historically right across Philippine politics, focuses the minds of many legislators far more than any socio-economic considerations that would benefit the country.
Taguiwalo caught the flavour of this in her post-vote statement on the decision. Here’s what she said: “When you seriously commit yourself to fighting corruption in government and opposing patronage politics, expect that those who have no qualms about using government funds to further their own political and self-serving agendas to work against you”.
Of course, we’d never suggest for one minute that any one sitting on the CA would even remotely have their fingers in the pie – nothing could be further from our imagination. No, certainly not; these are all upstanding citizens wanting the very best for the country. Aren’t they? They, we’re sure, are all guided by wholly altruistic motives; personal gain would never surely be any part of their decision-making process.
At the same time, though, the CA members will have been lobbied for months by their fellows in the House of Representatives and the Senate to ensure she was not confirmed. That pressure would have taken its toll.
What those lobbyist want is business-as-usual, not some anti-corruption crusader in their midst making it difficult for them to make a few million pesos on the side.
So there we have it – another howling blunder by the supposed crème-de la-crème of the Philippines’ political establishment. Another massively lost opportunity by a politics-as-usual elite that either caves to pressure or puts its own petty interests and political predilections ahead of those of the country – not least its 26 million poor.
Now we await with interest to see who the CA ultimately will appoint to the position of DSWD secretary. And then, how well that person operates in the role. For if that person’s performance is lacklustre, or inferior to Taguiwalo’s, the 25 members of the Commission on Appointments will be held responsible. Any foul-up in the handling of a natural disaster will be laid at their door; any corruption that emerges from that department will virtually have been sanctioned by them.
The fact is they’ll need to make the best appointment they’ve ever made in their lives – Judy Taguiwalo will be an extremely hard act to follow. Some would argue an impossible act to follow. And by dismissing her, the CA membership has ensured it’ll be put under the greatest scrutiny by the public for any appointment it’s ratified so far.