Why I am advising Grace Poe

Dean Tony La Viña
'All presidential candidates can request that advice.... I like all our 5 candidates. None of them are perfect, but none of them will necessarily be a disaster that some fear.'

People are debating who won the presidential debate last Sunday, February 21. In my view, an argument could be made for each candidate.

There are those who argue that Secretary Mar Roxas,  by going on the attack early and differentiating himself from the candidate, won. He also won points for defending the successes of the Aquino government. 

Others would claim that Senator Miram Defensor Santiago was the clear winner, being her usual witty self and delivering, as expected,  the smartest lines of the night. 

Vice President Jejomar Binay’s supporters, on the other hand, argue that he successfully repelled the corruption charges in prime time television and that counts for something. 

From an expectations point of view, I think Mayor Rody Duterte – just by coming in a barong, looking and sounding presidential – was definitely a winner. He also did not use vulgar language even as he repeated his usual lines of killing all criminals.

As for Senator Grace Poe, being the least experienced in the roster of candidates, people expected her to stumble and make big mistakes. The fact that she stood up to an intellectual giant like Santiago and to veterans like Binay, Roxas, and Duterte should be counted in her favor.

I don’t know about the other candidates, but I was a privy to how Senator Poe prepared for her debate. And I have to say it’s has been a fascinating experience.

But first of all, why even do this – advise a candidate. And why Grace Poe? 

Why advise candidates 

A good friend and colleague – a former senior government official and stalwart in the business community and civil society, someone I admire and revere as she is also an EDSA hero – asked me in good faith this question: why I was advising an “apprentice” president. 

First, I repeat what I have always said. My expertise on technical matters, like climate change and environmental issues, are available to the government, to NGOs, to the business community, and, yes, to all the presidential candidates. So is my broad legal, governance, and policy expertise, whether on constitutional law, the peace process, human rights, anti-corruption, social accountability, social entrepreneurship, etc.

That advice is freely given through my books, journal articles, columns and Facebook/Twitter posts. My students all over the country get it directly from me, but I also give public lectures and talks to Church groups, civic forums, etc. That advice can also be requested privately and confidentially.

I repeat: all government officials, politicians, and presidential candidates can request that advice. I honor all of them as I honor all our politicians. I am not a judgmental person; I know that is a weakness to some, but I have accomplished quite a lot of things in this world while trying to be always kind.

I have time and again said that I like all our 5 candidates. None of them are perfect; not one of them can save the country. But none of them will necessarily be a disaster that some fear. 

For example, the claims of Santiago and Duterte that they will be able to rid the country of criminality within a particular period of time should be understood as aspirational goals. Roxas’ promise to make us a first world country during his term, Binay’s commitment to make every town and city a Makati, and Poe’s hope for an inclusive society where no one is left behind should also be seen as vision. I would be happy if we can be on the way to these end-goals 6 years after any of these candidates take over.

None of these candidates are likely to be the disasters some of us imagine them to be. Even if some of the candidates might be corrupt, incompetent, inexperienced, physically challenged, or authoritarian, we have enough checks and balances that could avert the worse outcomes.

What is comforting to me is that all the presidential candidates have good people working for them. I have friends, former colleagues, and students in all the political campaigns, and I am convinced that they will do well and right if their respective candidate wins.

Negative attacks are wrong

I think attacking other candidates is bad for our country. It is also bad for the attacker as people see such attacks as acts of desperation. Negative attacks repel people, and even if it hurts the candidate attacked, votes will not transfer to the attacker but to the other options of the voters.

If you tell me how bad my candidate is, I will respond by telling you how bad yours is. And we will end up hating our country. But if I listen to you extolling your candidate and you listen to me doing so, that would make us feel better about our future. 

Some would say I am naive, but I have been in this business of political change since I was 16 years old and my views come from that experience of finding ways forward, whether it is in forging peace in Mindanao, fighting a dictatorship, pioneering in the advocacy of indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental protection, etc.

So I offer my advice on law, governance, and policy to all of them. I will continue to give it publicly, but will also give it privately and confidentially if that is preferred. I have close friends and former and current students in all the campaigns, from top to bottom; they would know how to contact me.

My advice is non-partisan and based on objective and independent assessment of the facts. Expect of course that my views are influenced by core good governance and ethical values: integrity, innovation, effectiveness, empowering to the poor and everyone, and inclusiveness.

Advising Grace Poe

As for Grace Poe, I did not even know her personally until a few months ago. I suppose she became aware of me because of my early writings on the disqualification issues against her. 

My views on the disqualification cases have nothing to do with politics. They stem from an absolute commitment to human rights – of foundlings and global Filipinos. I cannot accept any diminution of any basic human right under any circumstance and, in this case, of children, families, the very important institution of adoption, OFWS, migrants, dual citizens, and other in our global diaspora.

I have taught the primacy of human rights to thousands of students from my first job as a philosophy teacher 35 years ago to my current position as a law and governance professor. Win or lose in the Supreme Court, I will fight for those rights.

My first direct contact with Senator Poe was when she texted me after I wrote an article about her being politically bullied as a consequence of her INC controversy statement. While sympathetic to her, that article also criticized her for the naivete of that statement. To my surprise, she was appreciative of my frankness. She acknowledged she was new to this and welcomed inputs. While I work with senators who also welcome my advice, this was my first presidential candidate who showed such openness.

Since that first contact, probably in August, whenever I think it is necessary, I have communicated my suggestions to her and that included being critical when needed. In this country, where authority is everything, it is rare to meet a leader this humble and open so I decided to maximize the opportunity.

Let me illustrate what kind of leader Senator Poe is. During the debate preparations – which she conducted as policy forums with a dozen or so of us with senior government, business, civil society, and political experience – she would listen to us peppering her with questions and answers (sometimes contradictory) and absorb that, ask good questions, and test answers with us. (By the way, if she wins, there is a big group out and in government that will be ready to take over under her command after June.)

In those forums, I saw clearly a leader with the following qualities: super diligence and discipline, extraordinary focus while always having a long-term view of things, an ability to recall facts at her command, an expectation from those who work with her of complete staff work, respect of diverse views, absolute integrity and rejection of all forms of corruption, compassion for the poor and the excluded, welcoming of new ideas, extraordinary ability to communicate, strong will and leadership, and fortitude of character and generosity to her rivals and detractors no matter how much she is attacked.

Given the above, I find it ludicrous for people to say she is parroting someone or that politician can manipulate her. It is condescending to say that she did well in the debate because former NEDA Director General Cielito Habito, myself, and many others advised or coached her. Three to 4 meetings of an hour or two each in the last 3 months won’t swing that. She was the best in the debate on Sunday because she is a natural, in politics and more importantly in leadership.

PiliPinas 2016 Debate: Round 2 goes to Grace Poe
PiliPinas 2016 Debate: Round 3 goes to Grace Poe

So why I am advising Senator Poe? 

Because she would be good for the Philippines, especially for the poor and excluded. 

We need fresh eyes, clear minds, and good and kind hearts to move forward and solve old and new challenges. Poe definitely has these and more. – Rappler.com