Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blame games

Here in the city of Toronto, the mayor appears unbreakable. In other cities, notably Montreal, allegations of misbehaviour in office, whether corruption-related or simply fundamental flaws of character are enough to induce a sitting public official to resign. But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seems impervious to criticism and public clamour for him to step down because of acts unbecoming of a mayor of the largest Canadian city. There is always the media which he holds responsible for portraying him as Canada’s poster boy for politicians misbehaving in public.

In Manila, 8,206 miles away from Toronto, the media also happens to be the bane of existence for the sitting president. President Noynoy Aquino continues to suffer from an almost innate aversion to bad news, especially from newspaper columnists who disapprove of the way he handles one crisis after another, whether it is political or caused by natural disasters.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
When President Noynoy Aquino ordered the Sultan of Sulu to surrender his troops to the Malaysian military during a failed bloody incursion in Sabah last February 2013, he was criticized for his failure to weigh in the loss of Filipino lives. Instead of acting like a true statesman who would first consider the option of peacefully negotiating with a foreign country, President Aquino reacted in a way as if he was serving a foreign government instead of his own.

Then an earthquake shattered most of Bohol in October, and two weeks later, Super Typhoon Category 5 Haiyan almost erased Leyte and Samar from the country’s map. Every time the country faces a crisis, President Aquino has always displayed a ghostlike sense of hopelessness and lack of preparation and decisiveness as a leader. When Typhoon Haiyan struck, Aquino didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do and simply criticized the foreign press who parachuted to the country for continuously harping on the absence of government on the ground to help, rescue and provide aid to the typhoon victims. He blamed the local governments who were to his little mind the first line of defence, regardless that they too have been swept away by the typhoon. Even the estimates of the number of deaths were doubted as unnaturally too high. President Aquino expected the death toll not to go higher than 2,500, which he confidently told the world during a CNN interview. To date, the death toll stands over 7,000.

Amidst coping with natural disasters, President Aquino has also been losing his political battles. The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the much-maligned pork barrel which the President uses as a carrot and stick to keep members of Congress follow his line, had been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Next will be his own Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) fund which the Supreme Court is also expected to declare as without legal basis and a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

When there’s no one to blame, attribute it to the media. Most people today are skeptical of the media, especially the major newspapers whose columnists are perceived to be the ones manufacturing the news, not the actual events or issues that give rise to stories. Newspapers are full of opinions that their readers are not sure where they stand on the issues, or at best, whether to believe the opinions expressed by the pundits as the news on the ground.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford relies on his loyal following called the Ford Nation, voters who are mostly from the suburbs, working class, and recent immigrants. In the case of President Aquino, he has the yellow media, journalists loyal to his mother, former President Cory Aquino, and is perceived to be supported by business oligarchs. Both bailiwicks, whether the Ford Nation or Aquino’s yellow media, suffer from a malady of deniability. To them, everything in the press that disparages their hero has no semblance of the truth, even if the argument is overwhelmingly against them.

On the strength of his Ford Nation, Mayor Rob Ford, although reduced to a mere titular head by his own council, intends to run for re-election so he could get back his old powers as city mayor. President Aquino, on the other hand, while damaged by his own inept leadership during the country’s several crises, continues to ride on the weight of the legacy of his more popular parents that he still is the best qualified to rid the country of all forms of corruption despite allegations of dishonesty within his own government.

It is easy to blame the media if there is a bit of perception left in the public mind that your leaders are still popular and could be trusted with their leadership. With a rambunctious Ford Nation and a well-oiled and positioned yellow media, it is not surprising that both Ford and Aquino are still in power despite gasping for political oxygen.

Understanding the roots of this conundrum, whether in Toronto or Manila must start with a correct analysis, instead of simply focusing on the personalities of the characters involved. Mayor Ford misbehaving publicly is easily explainable. Admittedly, Ford has committed horrific and shameful acts unbecoming of a mayor, but the city council is powerless to depose him, or even ask him to resign as the most honourable thing to do under the circumstances. Unless he commits a crime and is sentenced to spend time in jail, or be absent for a continuous period of time in council, there’s nothing council can do to impeach him. In retrospect, the Ontario provincial parliament that enacted the city’s charter, perhaps, failed to consider that someone in the mould of Rob Ford could be elected as city mayor.

President Noynoy Aquino’s situation is much more complicated. A president who lacked the wherewithal of a capable and effective leader to run a nation was elected merely on the coattails of the legacy of his parents. This is not forgivable by any means. It is not only his lack of presidential chutzpah that is bothersome but his audacity to pretend he has the moral ascendancy to lead, even to ignore the Constitution that he is supposed to uphold and protect if he wants to have his way. But of course, more than half of the blame falls on the shoulders of his key people in the cabinet, those who obviously are running the government for him.

The Philippines occupies the typhoon belt of the Pacific. It is visited with typhoons every year from the onset of the rainy season until the end of the year. In addition, it is also prone to earthquakes which occur with almost the same regularity as typhoons visit the country. Any sitting President, who is able to understand the natural cycle of typhoons and earthquakes and the calamities they bring upon the country, especially to the poor who are more vulnerable to be victims of natural disasters, will see to it that the government is always prepared and ready to deal with these natural phenomena. By now, after numerous typhoons and earthquakes and with the experience learned from government responses, one would have thought that an effective national emergency and preparedness program is already in place. But Typhoon Haiyan has exposed that the country’s leadership is not up to this task.

A well-coordinated emergency response by the national government would at least prepare the population for the wrath of storms and typhoons and enable the responders and the victims to cope with the humanitarian disaster in the aftermath. But the answer or the challenge to natural disasters does not stop there. The government must start embracing the position that climate change has the most to do with the increasing frequency and intensity of typhoons that visit the Philippines every year.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls the evidence of climate change “unequivocal.” The effects of climate change are manifest in the irreversible rise in sea levels, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events—the list goes on.
An Angry Red Hot Planet. Photo courtesy of the Green Party.
The Philippine government arguably is not solely responsible for causing this climate madness. Like other island-states, the Philippines has contributed the least to climate change compared to the more advanced and industrialized countries which are the world’s major greenhouse gas polluters. Yet, the Philippines and the poorer countries of the Third World are the main victims of climate change.

While the United Nations has established a Green Climate Fund, a targeted pool of $100 billion that will help developing countries adjust to climate change crises, contributions from the developed countries have been small and slow in coming. The UN still has to iron out when and how to deliver the fund.

But the Green Climate Fund is not the real solution to climate change. Unless the industrialized countries agree to radical emission cuts immediately, the climate madness that we are now experiencing is in danger of becoming a way of life to many of its victim-countries like the Philippines.

Naderev Saño, the Philippines chief climate negotiator, summed up this situation in his talk before the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) where he linked Typhoon Haiyan to climate change:

“What my country (the Philippines) is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness...We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.... Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action.”

The only problem is no one’s listening to Saño’s warning, starting with President Noynoy Aquino. The current President is more interested in hearing only the good news, which would boost his polling numbers and the public’s acceptance of his leadership. He would even prefer to wallow in denial, like dismissing reports of deaths from Typhoon Haiyan beyond what he has established as an acceptable number. Or he would blame local government officials for not doing their jobs as first responders to natural disasters. Or he would blame those in the opposition, including the Supreme Court, for diluting his preconceived powers that he could accelerate government spending to stimulate the economy without prior Congressional authorization even if it was for the purpose of buying off the opposition.

President Aquino’s natural tendency to blame others for his woes creates, on top of the climate fiasco, a climate of arrogance and smugness—that his government is invincible, that it cannot fail or make mistakes. When you have a leader with this frame of mind, anything he doesn’t like is negative, and that is a very dangerous shortcoming. More often than not, a leader with this character flaw lives in a world of fantasy: one more step, and it’s closer to madness.

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