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MANILA, Philippines – Rappler’s Maria Ressa talks to Senator Risa Hontiveros, the sole dissenting vote during the Senate vote on emergency powers for President Rodrigo Duterte.
Under the approved bill, Senate would give Duterte “authority subject to limitations” granted by the special powers listed in the measure.
Technically, there were 20 senators who “cast” their votes, with 8 of them doing so through phone call. But officially, the affirmative votes of the 12 senators who were at the plenary will be counted.
Only Hontiveros voted against the measure through phone call.
Why did she dissent to it? Watch the interview with Hontiveros here.
MR: Hello, everybody. I’m Maria Ressa. We are under home quarantine but we’re now speaking with the sole dissenter at the Senate in the middle of the night last night, Senator Risa Hontiveros. Senator Hontiveros, thanks so much.
RH: Thank you Maria.
MR: What happened? Why were you the sole dissenter?
RH: Ako ‘yung sole dissenter dahil tingin ko, hindi naman talaga kailangan ng emergency powers sa pag-secure ng pondo, para sa mga panawagan ng publiko natin ng tulong laban sa COVID-19. Our current laws and mechanisms already provide that. Ang punto ko ay puwedeng abusuhin ang pag-allocate ng pondo at ng mga programa. So paano natin masisiguro na mapupunta talaga ito sa taumbayan? Hindi naman kasi emergency powers ang kailangan o sagot sa pandemic, kundi political will. Political will para ano? Mag-conduct ng mass testing, na hindi naipasok sa batas. Magbigay ng sapat na personal protective equipment o PPEs at hazard pay sa mga frontliners, which partly got into the law. Cash assistance sa mga mahihirap na pamilya at nawalan ng kita – also that partly got into the law, including my amendment on cash transfers. And I know na ito ‘yung mga kailangan maisagawa through political will because I’m one of those who pushed for these from the very beginning. At lahat ng mga programang ito, nasa kasalukuyang batas, nasa kasalukuyang kapangyarihan ng Presidente, at nasa kasalukuyang pondo na meron na tayo.
Now, sa bill na ‘to, ang problema pa ay binibigyan din natin si Presidente ng kapangyarihan sa pondo, sa savings, sa lahat – and I mean lahat – ng mga national government agencies, pati GOCCs or government-owned and controlled corporations. So halimbawa, pwedeng kunin ni Presidente ang pondo mula sa Philhealth, pondo mula sa Coco Levy Fund, pondo mula sa rice tarrification – ilang halimbawa lang – ng walang checks and balances. Habang may access ang Pangulo sa napakalaking budget na wala pang klarong programa, wala pang strategy laban sa COVID-19. And this bill asks us to trust government a lot. Now how can we trust government or an administration that wanted to give P14 billion to tourism while our doctors still didn’t even have enough personal protective equipment? So paano natin masisigurado na ‘yung pondo na sinurrender basically sa Pangulo ay mapupunta sa taumbayan? What now gives we the people the power to monitor the implementation of these projects and programs na totoo naman ay talagang makakatulong? Given the track record of the administration… A basic step one question, bakit tayo mag-gagrant ng special powers sa Presidente na hindi pa nga niya nagagamit ‘yung mga ordinaryo at komprehensibong powers na meron siya sa ngayon? Ang hinihingi ng publiko ay klarong programa laban sa krisis ng COVID-19. At ang iniiwasan nating mangyari ngayon ay isa pang krisis kung magdudulot ito ng bigger opportunities for abuse dahil nawala ang checks and balances.
Now moving forward, we will closely watch the implementation to protect against the overstepping of power. Gusto kong makita ang mga nauna ko nang naging rekomendasyon ng cash assistance at hazard pay, na maibigay talaga ito sa ating mga frontliners at mga pinaka-vulnerable at at risk na mahihirap na Pilipino. Ngayon, higit sa lahat, mas mataas ang expectations ng publiko sa gobyerno sa pag-responde sa krisis na ito. And the people shouldn’t be let down.
MR: Those are all the same reasons… I mean we’ve certainly been doing these stories in the past few days – the lack of coherence, the lack of strategic and both tactical, right? So the question really is, how could the senators – whose job it is to actually hold the executive accountable – what was the debate like? Why did this bill pass?
RH: Well I also monitored the debate from self-quarantine online. And I saw that my colleagues really worked long and hard, and actually introduced quite a number of good amendments to the original bill of the President. So nakita natin ‘yung mga amienda tungkol sa cash transfers, which was one of my amendments. And I’m grateful it was sponsored by Senator Grace on the floor. We saw amendments about additional hazard pay for our frontliners. And then in the end, with some of these good amendments, that went in. There were also by the way some amendments regarding the realignment of the budget. So I guess in the end, we the Senate passed this bill into law because I suppose my colleagues felt that the amendments, the improvements to the original bill were sufficient for them to give their yes to this.
At hindi ako nag-aargue laban sa mga amendments which would provide anti-COVID-19 tactics – not yet really a strategy – but tactics against the disease. Ang punto ko, Maria, ay these powers and resources are already provided for by existing laws. The mandatory reporting of infectious diseases law, the new procurement act, even certain powers already within the hands of the Office of the President – without need for emergency powers.
The other really big, nagging issue that was not settled in my mind until we put this to a vote was the possibility for abuse. If the problem were simply superfluity, or na hindi naman kailangan ang batas na ito, may mga batas na… But what’s more dangerous, is for example, the surrender of an important part of the power of the purse of Congress to the Office of the President. So saan na papasok ‘yung checks and balances? Did we let the President share Congress’s power of the purse in exchange for some good anti-COVID-19 measures na pwede naman nating gawin under current laws and programs, and even existing funds? And Congress was willing to give the executive a supplemental budget. Bakit hindi na lang iyon ang ipinasa namin?
MR: Senator, the rush for this, right? We see in the United States for example, the US Senate did not give President Trump what he asked for. Why was there such a rush to do this in the Philippines?
RH: Well perhaps there’s already – at dapat lang – more of a sense of urgency here in the Philippines than our American sisters and brothers are sensing from their president. I would have also wanted more time… For example, those of us in self-quarantine to be able to get back on the floor to interpellate and to personally propose our amendments. But I guess the sense of urgency that has belatedly caught up on us moved Congress to act posthaste. OK lang naman sana kung nagmamadali pero we should have been guided by a clear strategy, which until now – the morning after or hours after – we still don’t have. It should really be health in command here, not primarily law enforcement alone, not primarily trade and industry alone. But those very important supporting actors. You know, health and common sense supported by enforcement and logistics, for example. Pero ano nga ba talaga ‘yung strategy natin to slow and eventually stop the spread of COVID-19? The law did not even include mass testing. So paano natin ie-establish ang ating baseline so that we know how many Filipinos are sick, how many severely, how many mildly? Paano natin aalagaan ang severely sick – isolate them, treat them? How do we protect those who are still well? How do we capacitate our health system so that it doesn’t collapse but instead copes with the number of illnesses, and I hope less rather than more deaths? How do we protect our frontline health service providers?
So ang daming concerns na maaga pang sinasabi. Lately we have more of a sense of urgency but we can’t act on this like putting out small fires around a big forest fire. Kailangan meron talaga tayong malakihang strategy and within that, we identify the fire-fighting measures, and we put the resources behind those. Right now, what is it, 10 hours after we passed the law? We still don’t have that. We have a menu of good action points that could have been done by our government under existing laws. And we have the funds for those. So medyo frustrating lang talaga, Maria.
MR: Senator, last question is, the Duterte administration has always reached for emergency powers. And so if you look at what happened online yesterday, people were watching. Part of it is cause we’re all working from home – everyone is watching, right? I’m just surprised to listen to the Congress and the Senate and to see a lack of acknowledgement that President Duterte in his last two proclamations and his last two press conferences was largely incoherent. You know, we hear Congressman LRay Villafuerte talk about how President Duterte understands and is quick to decide. No one is arguing against a lockdown – in fact Filipinos want strong action. But hasn’t our legislature just ceded control to an executive that seems incoherent at best?
RH: Well, that’s the danger about what we have done, Maria. We haven’t addressed the problem by laying out the baseline and the complete situationer as far as we can capture it from the data. We haven’t formulated and assertively proposed a strategy to – as the experts say – flatten the curve. And we haven’t rallied the package of actions and resources, including human resources, to implement this strategy starting today, to – as Tomas Pueyo wrote beautifully – buy us time. Instead, we haven’t addressed that main job, but we have handed unnecessary emergency powers to a president who has not shown the good faith of using even the ordinary powers in an efficient, let alone democratic, way. So what have we done? We’re not addressing the problem yet. I hope we’re not creating more of a problem. So as I mentioned earlier, just moving forward, using this new tool that we have, this law, though it’s not the best and major tool that we need, let’s prevent it from being turned into a sledgehammer. Let’s make it as useful as possible by making sure that the good stuff in it is actually implemented, and well. But for one, with the health experts and the public health advocates and our heroic frontline health service providers… You know, I’m so sad, our family cardiologist Dr. Jara was just reported today as having died early this morning. With wonderful people like him and the wonderful people in our public and private health sector, and people on the ground who have a lot of common sense, I’ll continue within the Senate to exercise oversight and really keep on raising policy and program proposals on how we are truly – not only primarily through this law – to address COVID-19. How we are to live out a beautiful value of the WHO in public health emergency preparedness – which is duty to care. So let’s take care of ourselves, of each other, and of all people.
MR: Thank you, Senator.