Riveting. Nail biting. Spine-tingling. Titillating. The Senate gossip starring Juan Ponce Enrile or JPE and Gigi Reyes, his chief of staff, grabs our attention.
That the Philippine media have made it headline news is okay. After all, public interest is at stake. Gigi Reyes has been accused of being an unelected senator.
But the media and their audience are more interested about the alleged romance, not the public interest implications. Well, we are not alone. The US media brought out Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton and his cigar. The French press highlighted the ménage a trois that involved the French President Francois Hollande, his current lover, Valerie Trierweiler, and his ex-wife, Segolene Royal.
But let’s be politically correct for a moment. What happens in bed involving our high-level officials is none of our business. Only when public interest is screwed up can we citizens get involved.
The JPE-Gigi Reyes affair that should bother us is not the private one. What concerns us is whether their influence and actions have a bearing on public interest. The issue that involves public interest is not even about Gigi Reyes’s attendance in exclusive meetings of the Senate. Nor is it about her authority to sign checks or write memos to Senators.
The close relationship between JPE and Gigi Reyes is common knowledge in the Senate. But what has not surfaced, an open secret in the Senate, is the alleged connection of Gigi Reyes with a powerful lobbyist, which is Philip Morris. The tobacco industry, with Philip Morris having a market share of close to 95 percent, is said to be the most powerful tobacco lobby in Asia.
It is high time Gigi Reyes disclosed her relationship with Philip Morris.
The fact: JPE and his Senate faction voted against the sin tax reform that substantially increased tobacco excise taxes and that stripped the rules that gave Philip Morris and legacy brands unfair advantage over new entrants. Yet, back in 2004, JPE supported the essential reforms that are now found in the new sin tax law (which he opposed). The difference? At that time, Philip Morris and Fortune Tobacco were mortal enemies, and the rules discriminated against the former. Thereafter, Philip Morris played a new game—by merging with Fortune Tobacco and having management control over the merger.
Philip Morris has far-reaching tentacles. In the Lower House, its allies are found in the so-called Northern Alliance, composed of Representatives from the tobacco-growing districts. More importantly, Philip Morris’s influence extends to the House leadership.
The information that leaked out from the bicameral conference meetings on the tobacco and alcohol excise taxes was that Speaker Sonny Belmonte (SB) and Majority Floor Leader Boyet Gonzales wanted to re-open the negotiations after the bicameral conference had agreed upon the essential reforms, including the high tax rates for tobacco and the adoption of a unitary tax for tobacco and beer.
Boyet Gonzales himself must make a disclosure. His law firm Gonzales Batiller David Leabres Reyes & Associates is said to serve Philip Morris.
The re-opening of the talks to water down the tax rates was pre-empted by two developments. First, Senator Frank Drilon had a press conference where he announced the reforms that the bicameral conference meeting sealed. Second, Representative Isidro Ungab, the reform-oriented Chair of the House’s Ways and Means Committee, told the Speaker and the Majority Floor Leader that he would resign as Chair of the Ways and Means and as member of the bicameral conference if any further compromises were made.
What then am I driving at? Let’s not deal with the alleged tryst between JPE and Gigi. The real issue is that JPE and Gigi are anti-reform, and they have something in common with SB and Boyet. JPE, Gigi, SB and Boyet are supposed to be allies of the Aquino administration; yet they block the Aquino administration’s reform agenda.
The sin tax law is the best proxy for the Aquino reform agenda. It addresses both economic and political reforms, and the struggle to have it passed pitted public interest against powerful vested interests. That JPE and Gigi opposed the sin tax and that SB and Boyet tried to undermine its passage should be enough indication that they cannot be trusted in pursuing other critical daang-matuwid reforms.
Indeed, in the Lower House, we again are witness to the non-cooperation of SB and Boyet. They are trying to kill in a soft and subtle way the bill on freedom of information (FOI). What are they afraid of?
The President and his spokespersons have spoken: Malacañang has given its inputs and amendments to the bill; the President wants the House to have plenary debates on the bill. Yet, SB and Boyet have ignored this. They are using all the tricks to delay the plenary deliberations on the FOI. And with less than a week of working sessions in the House, such delaying tactics have rendered the FOI bill dead in the water. Only the intervention of Malacañang can revive the bill.
But as PNoy himself said, “nothing is impossible.” A new coalition of the Executive, the reformers in the legislature, and civil society must be built to make JPE and Gigi and SB and Boyet inutile.