Friday, September 21, 2007

The Battle of "Commissioners"

Just when things are looking up for the Macapagal-Arroyo administration (i.e. 7.4% growth, Erap conviction, etc.), another corruption scandal involving the First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, COMELEC Chair Ben Abalos and DOTC Secretary Larry Mendoza has exploded, upsetting the fragile political balance in the country. Even now, leading political observers and opinion-makers are already predicting an intra-administration showdown in the House of Representatives next week. The last three years of the Arroyo administration will not be so boring after all.

During the Senate hearing on the ZTE-NBN scandal, many people were surprised to see almost all of GMA's Cabinet in attendance. I surmise that it was GMA's way of showing the senators (and others who want to topple her) that there will not be a repeat of the "Hyatt 10" mass resignation and that her entire Cabinet stands solidly behind the project. The President's message to the senators is clear: she is standing by the project and there is no backing off (no pun intended) from the ZTE-NBN deal.

While I admire the young de Venecia's courage in blowing the whistle, I find it hard to symphatize with him. I think it was Senator Joker Arroyo who most aptly described the situation as a battle between "commissioners," meaning that the current controversy is merely a fight over who gets the biggest commission. I for one find the younger de Venecia's claim that he refused the $10 million offered to him by Chairman Abalos just so he would back off from the deal simply unbelievable. I mean, judging from the information that emerged from the Senate hearing and assorted media reports, Amsterdam Holdings Inc.'s capacity to undertake the project is also doubtful. Aside from its minimal capitalization, it now seems that AHI also lacks the proven track record and the technical expertise to mount a project of this scale. So if the $10 million offer was indeed true, I would think that Joey de Venecia absolutely has no reason not to accept it. I mean, it is not everyday that one gets $10 million just for doing nothing!

From a policy perspective, I think Senator Mar Roxas hit the nail right in the head by pointing out that the computed savings to be generated by government (estimated to be P5 billion annually) from the ZTE-NBN project is totally erroneous. Given the more urgent and more important services that the government needs to provide our people, why is our government prioritizing a project that will not directly benefit our citizenry but will merely allow better communication between public agencies? Will the project improve the delivery of basic services to the public? Will the project improve the lives of our people? I think the proponents failed to adequately address these questions during the Senate hearing.

Owning its own broadband network should be government's least priority and concern, especially given the fact that our private telecommunications sector can more than adequately meet that demand. I mean, never before in our entire history has government been more "interconnected," what with cheap DSL rates and the popularity of text nowadays. So what if government is paying private telcos P3 billion or even P5 billion a year for telephone and internet connection? I find nothing wrong with that. At least, since telephone and internet subscriptions are charged under an agency's MOOE (maintenance and other operating expenses) budget, we can be sure that no enterprising head of agency is getting a commission for it. Well, at least not in the dizzying amounts mentioned by Joey de Venecia.