Monday, October 01, 2007

Disappointing, futile, absurd

The biggest story last week was former National Economic Development Authority Secretary Romulo Neri’s appearance at the Senate investigation on the national broadband network deal.

Neri’s appearance was preceded by a lot of speculation and wild theorizing, all of which fed on each other to produce a state of heightened anticipation. The question that was foremost on people’s mind was: Will Neri implicate President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and provide damning testimony that would spell doom for this administration?

There were those who (citing supposedly very reliable sources, in this case, a friend of a friend of friend to whom Neri—again, supposedly— unburdened himself to) were certain that Neri would spill the beans on the President allegedly because Neri was sick and tired of having to compromise his principles under this administration. The theories that were circulating were replete with details such as dates, verbatim statements, etc., no wonder a number of people were already salivating and quivering at the prospects of being able to finally kick someone’s butt out of Malacañang.

And so despite my misgivings about the way our senators had conducted hearings in the past, I made it a point to follow the proceedings last Wednesday, precisely because I wanted to find out firsthand what kind of explosive information Neri would let loose. As I said, Neri had been depicted as this person of integrity who had had it with the shenanigans of this administration. Some people even showed up at the gate of his residence in Sta. Mesa to provide moral support on the eve of his appearance at the Senate. The scuttlebutt was that if the senators asked the right questions, he would sing like a lovelorn canary.

As we all know by now, Neri did not snitch on his boss and chose to invoke executive privilege. He claimed that conversations between Cabinet secretaries and the President of the Republic of the Philippines are privileged information.

What went wrong? Why the turnaround?

Some people immediately came up with theories to explain Neri’s supposed change of heart. He was supposed to have been threatened not only by people from Malacañang but also by very powerful friends of the administration. Some directly attacked him and called him a lot of names that ranged from “coward” to “spineless.”

I don’t quite agree with all the gobbledygook about how national security can be imperiled if government officials choose to squeal on the tomfoolery of their colleagues or their superiors. I happen to think that the people’s right to know, particularly about the culpability of our leaders on certain anomalous transactions, precedes other considerations.

The critical component, however, is that such revelations are made at the right forum and to individuals who know what to do with that kind of information.

As such, I fully empathize with Neri’s decision not to squeal on the President before a Senate hearing. If I were in Neri’s shoes, I wouldn’t do so as well. I think that the current Philippine Senate is simply incapable of being entrusted with information that has grave implications on the nation.

Last Wednesday’s hearing illustrated this fact clearly.

It was plainly obvious that that particular hearing did not have a clear purpose other than to fish out information. If Neri did squeal, I doubt if the Senate would have had a strategic action plan that would put Neri’s revelations to better use. I am sure that the senators would simply have taken turns trying to extract juicier, more lurid details, or correspondingly, attacking Neri’s credibility. It would have been a free-for-all melee. And after the bloodbath, Neri would have been left to fend for himself. This Senate has a sorry record both in terms of legislation and in their oversight function.

Let’s make a quick reality check: What has happened to all the other previous investigations of the Senate? Did anything come out of them? You know what the answers are. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.

***

We all know that a Senate hearing on any controversial issue in this country is potentially an explosive event of staggering proportions. Words fail to describe the spectacle. Some writers have described it as something akin to an orgy. Others have referred to it as a cross between a neighborhood brawl and an inquisition during the Middle Ages.

As a result, Senate hearings, such as the one last Wednesday, are riveting. They keep people glued to their television sets. People watch the whole proceedings with bated breath, eagerly anticipating the next tantrum, the next preposterous question, or the next shocking revelation. Senate hearings have become a sordid form of entertainment.

One wishes that given the inordinate media attention and the colossal amount of public money spent on these hearings, our senators would transform these events into lessons in civics. One wishes that these hearings were turned into a platform to educate people on the proper way to conduct a debate as a healthy form of discourse. One wishes that these hearings become truly productive and actually result in something more tangible other than inflating egos (the senators’) and assassinating reputations (usually the witnesses’ or those of the subjects of the investigation).

Unfortunately, the potential and opportunity are wasted because our senators have this proclivity to engage in a contest to determine who among them is the better bully. They turn these hearings into a pissing contest. They swagger around and pretend that they are prosecutors and high-profile lawyers cross-examining witnesses in a criminal trial.

Our senators don’t simply ask questions. They intimidate invited witnesses. They make insinuations. And when insinuations do not work, they make brazen accusations. They fish for information. They trundle out unverified text messages. They have no compunctions about mentioning names of private individuals. They make racist statements. They swagger around and make pompous statements that only complicate issues and draw in more people into the fray.

And when their energies are spent and their egos have already been fully inflated, they move on to the next investigation without even providing closure to the previous issue. The cycle goes on and on.

Last Wednesday’s Senate hearing was no exception. Boy oh boy, was that hearing a complete blast. Not even Neri’s disappointing testimony could diminish the impact of the event as the classic example of an expensive exercise in absurdity. My friends and I were in Cebu on that fateful Wednesday to attend the 44th Annual Conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines. Since the conference was scheduled to open at 3 p.m. yet, we decided to converge in one of the hotel rooms to watch the proceedings instead of joining a city tour.

As we watched the proceedings on television, we didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or to do both at the same time. There really is no need to shift to a parliamentary form of government to make the Senate obsolete. Our senators are already doing an excellent job of killing the institution on their own.


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