Non-fiction

Beating Dickheads

I know exactly how you feel. I see you at the brekkie table, reading a newspaper. You – a decent citizen, a reasonably informed voter, patriotic in your own quiet way. I know exactly, because I’m the same. Whether it was Julia Gillard and Labor who got your goat, or Tony Abbott and the Liberals who make you spew, the urge is universal: you sit at breakfast and poke your finger once, twice, thrice into the newsprint or touch screen. You turn, tongue-tied, head shaking, managing only to say to your spouse: What a dickhead! 

This is natural. Healthy. A reasonable defence mechanism. We all feel disenfranchised, from time to time. From election to election, it’s like our vote is ultimately useless. Like our choices are always only the lesser of a few evils. Because what else can we do? 

Every nation has its unfair share of dickheads, douchebags, dingleberries and degenerates. But my country, the Philippines, bests most in democratic tomfoolery. My entire life, a panoply of perfidious politicians has reigned, inheriting or bequeathing unchallengeable dynasties. Congress, Senate, governorships, mayoralties and even the presidency are but a game of musical chairs (which function, yes, like thrones). 

The roots of this are deep. They predate our republic. The Filipino archipelago, a colony of Spain for more than three centuries, watched its revolution and independence stolen by its ally, the United States. The Americans saw in our islands a strategic and economic opportunity and waged a bloody war in which massacres and waterboarding were used for conquest while education and democracy were wielded to win hearts and minds. Into positions of power were placed members of the local elite – neither the best nor the brightest, but usually the most co-operative. If this sounds familiar, you are not off. As was once said by Mark Twain (who, incidentally, protested against US imperialism in the Philippines): ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’. The recent nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan echoes the Philippines, just as the same surnames recur in Filipino politics throughout the last century. Some things never change. 

Yet presidents and their pundits will always declare that things are improving. On the face of it, they’re not lying. The Philippines is no longer the sick man of Asia. Our middle class is expanding. Our workers are prized all over the world. The country is politically stable compared to our neighbours. The administration of our current president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, has cracked down on corruption, most notably on a scandalous pork-barrel scam implicating a dozen powerful senators and more than a score of congressmen. And, best of all, the Philippine economy is booming. 

But the same families maintain a stranglehold on power while the gap between rich and poor widens. Monopolies, nepotism, tax evasion, protectionism, erratic regulation (too little where it’s needed, too much where it’s not) and personal relationships between business and policy makers continue to bloat the wealth of the political and non-political elite alike. 

A recent study by economist Cielito Habito said that the forty richest Filipinos account for three-quarters of the country’s GDP growth – the highest proportion in Asia. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, this contrasts with Thailand, whose swankiest forty are behind a third of GDP growth. Malaysia’s fattest forty account for just 5.6 per cent, while Japan’s drive a mere 2.8 per cent. Meanwhile, the top two Filipinos on Forbes magazine’s rich list account for around $18.8 billion – 6 per cent of my country’s wealth. This was contrasted with the bottom quarter of Filipinos, who live on hardly a dollar a day. That’s twenty-five million people, more than the population of Australia, living on less than a buck. This ratio, the Inquirer reported, ‘was little changed from a decade earlier’. 

But what’s more insidious than the ongoing saga of unequal growth and governmental thievery is how the Filipino elite has systematically engineered legislation and the mechanisms of government to protect its control. Some examples: the heft of the Philippine Catholic bishops scuppered for twelve years any real reproductive health initiatives. A Freedom of Information Act has languished in the legislature. Defamation is criminalised and carries stiff prison sentences. Offending religious feelings is punishable by jail. And a popular anti-dynasty bill stands no chance of even making it through the lower house of Congress. Meanwhile, top senators recently admitted that it’s not so much religion that keeps the Philippines the world’s last country where divorce is illegal, it’s that many male politicians (with their mistresses and additional families) do not wish to risk paying alimony to unhappy former wives. 

Such is the evidence that the separation of powers remains a quaint myth. Party lines aren’t drawn from ideology but from personality and political expediency. Checks and balances just aren’t sympatico with bank cheques and account balances. The system is geared accordingly. The president alone has the power to appoint hundreds of prominent officials, including judges, chiefs of departments and bureaus, heads of task forces and the mid- to top-level brass of the armed forces. The ability of the president’s anointed ones to appoint others extends our commander-in-chief ’s influence into many thousands of key positions. 

Why would anyone in power seek to change what clearly works for them? That is why our dynasties put the 1980s soap opera to shame: clans control cities, districts, entire regions. They seem to be familial fiefdoms because they are. 

To this asks the regular Filipino – a decent citizen, a reasonably informed voter, patriotic in her or his quiet way – what can we do? What is left to be done but poke our fingers into the newspaper and shake our heads and curse the terrible kleptocrats who won’t bugger off? 

Take, for instance, Imelda Marcos: she of the famous shoes, the former first lady to the late strongman responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings, billions plundered from government coffers and the country’s economic demise during their twenty-one-year conjugal dictatorship. After opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr was assassinated, the Marcoses were ousted in the famous People Power Revolution of 1986, fleeing in distress and disgrace. Yet Imelda returned after a few years, was elected a governor and is now on her third term as a congresswoman. This, despite billions of pesos stolen, with much still missing, and a graft conviction demanding ten years in jail, which she managed somehow to dodge. Imelda’s daughter was also in Congress and is now governor of her father’s home province. Imelda’s son, Bongbong, took his turn as governor and congressman and is currently a top senator with promising presidential aspirations for next year’s election – despite recent revelations that he lied about receiving degrees from Oxford and Wharton. 

What can we do? 

 

 

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