Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Most influential with P-Noy: Purisima and Mar

Few political pundits are giving the new Palace Communications Group --- the most ambitious media projection conceived in any administration--- much chance for success. This is because human nature is often jealous of its turf. As envisioned, the three Cabinet-rank officials in this team, namely, Ricky Carandang, Sonny Coloma and Edwin Lacierda, (a fourth official, Manolo Quezon formerly of the Inquirer and ABS-CBN, serves as Carandang’s deputy)---all successful media practitioners----have divided the task of government projection among themselves: Carandang would take care of crafting P-Noy’s messages, while Coloma would run the various government media agencies; Lacierda would probably convey the messages as crafted by Carandang’s office.

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On paper the delineation of duties and roles is clear and they are co-equal. But in actual practice, these members of the Palace Media Trinity are bound to clash at some point. Perhaps a subaltern would stray outside his territory and commits a gaffe; then finger-pointing begins and instead of “messaging,” there might be a frequent need for “massaging” angry egos, and damage-control. How often this had happened in past administrations, even without this three-headed monster set-up.

On top of this complex set-up, the spokesperson in every line department is being given a more active role ---19 such spokespersons at last count---compared to the past administration. They will explain their offices’ role at their level, before all the info is tied up by the upstairs team into a coherent message.

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But this hitherto most peculiar set-up and the scarce chances of success being credited to the Palace communications team may just spur the three professionals at its helm to exert more effort to harmonize and avoid the pitfalls that critics are raring for them to commit. The bottom line is that Aquino strategists, who had earlier fleshed out one of the most remarkably successful PR marketing in the history of political campaigning , have now carefully studied the failure of Aquino's predecessor to shape public opinion; the Media Trinity is determined to avoid those pitfalls. But in this complex set-up that the Aquino administration has conceived to tackle the separated problems of “messaging” and “media operations” may lie its own destruction, if it doesn’t watch out.

By the way, the buzz in banking circles is that the people considered most influential with P-Noy are not the imaging guys, but Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and one who’s not even elected and has no post at all---Mar Roxas.

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Last Monday’s SONA was business-like, devoid of frills; more like a grocery list of immediately implementable moves than a marching call to greatness and vision for the next six years, as a new administration’s first SONA should be. Each listener practically had his wish-list of items he wanted to hear but did not, e.g., some clue to the fate of the Reproductive Health Bill, the Freedom of Information Act, Charter Change, etc.

P-Noy’s expressed desires, however, showed his priorities, e.g., pushing for the Whistle Blowers’ Bill and strengthening the Witness Protection Program, in order to strengthen the prosecution cases against GMA. On the other hand, he argued, moving out some camps and consolidating them into Camp Aguinaldo, the premier camp, would free those lands for lease-rent, to increase revenues for badly-needed modernization of the AFP. He also pushed for the resumption of peace initiatives with the MILF after the Ramadan, and with the CPP-NPA-NDF by declaring government’s readiness to declare a unilateral ceasefire if the other side is ready to present proposals for peace.

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Earlier I had written that Camp Aguinaldo cannot be leased as there appears to have been an understanding that it would revert to the Ortigases the moment the military leaves it. It appears now that the plan is for the other camps to be consolidated into Aguinaldo, so that some 155 hectares of the vacated camps (22 hectares from the Navy, 30 has. From Villamor Air Base and 103 has in Fort Bonifacio) could be leased to business corporations for huge amounts of money. But some senators raised the need for congressional action on such lease. I’d also question the wisdom of putting the various armed services into one camp, from the standpoint of security.

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Apparently the idea of moving the services into Camp Aguinaldo is to replicate somewhat the US Pentagon, which is the home of the US Depatment of Defense, the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But unlike the Pentagon, whose 14 hectare, five-sided building is built on huge sprawling grounds in Arlington, Virginia, Camp Aguinaldo is squeezed in between heavily populated residential areas, a market and shopping areas. The environs are so tight and traffic so bad that if there’s an attack more serious than that which Gregorio Honasan launched in August 1987, the units inside have little space to maneuver. I should know, for I lived there for 25 years and was witness to the various coup d’etats there. It should also be noted that despite the impenetrability of the Pentagon, a hijacked civilian airline attacked its west wing on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 189 people.

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On the eve of the SONA Cecile Alvarez and I had as guest former UP President and Kalayaan College President Jose V. Abueva, now also a new columnist for the “Bohol Chronicle” in his home province. Dr. Abueva’s SONA wish list included, to no one’s surprise, that P-Noy push for “policy and institutional changes in our Constitution by asking Congress to act on this idea.” He opined that there is no need for a commission or a referendum to consult the people on whether they want charter change or not, as this has been over-studied in various groups in the past, notably by the commission that Abueva headed in the GMA years; moreover, he argued, P-Noy’s legitimacy and high popular trust will make his initiative to change the Constitution via a Con-Con welcome and “least subject to suspicion.”

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Abueva stressed the significance that while P-Noy’s mother caused the drawing up of the Constitition, so that it’s popularly known as the “Cory Constitution,” her son could leave as a “major legacy” the correction of basic flaws in that charter. He rattled off among the flaws the too-short House terms, the need to elect senators regionally instead of nationally (which is too expensive), bloc-voting for the two highest officials, as in the US, urgent review of the party-list concept, and the strengthening of party affiliations to make ruling parties accountable in a parliamentary system. He proposed that the people’s referendum on a new charter, a necessary step under the current Constitution, be made to coincide with the 2013 mid-term elections.

I have always recognized the urgent need to restructure our governmental set-up through Charter Change, but as I told Dr. Abueva, I doubt if P-Noy would even advocate it now. The SONA proved me right, but we can always keep the hope that one day he would see the light in this regard.

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