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Unspokesmanlike speculation

I’m told that lawyers, when they appear in court, aren’t allowed to speculate like, say, newspaper columnists. They’re supposed to present evidence and argue their case before a judge on the basis of that.

Having said that, I think I can be allowed to speculate that Harry Roque, the presidential spokesman, should stop speculating because, after all, too much of that could be bad for Roque’s political career. To say nothing of the deleterious effects of unspokesmanlike speculation on his boss, the president.

Roque yesterday admitted that he merely “speculated” that President Rodrigo Duterte would double the salaries of public school teachers. He said he assumed, in a palace briefing, that the President wanted to do for the teachers what he did for soldiers and policemen.

No less an authority on public spending than Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno shot down Roque’s speculations in a press conference. And now, some people are letting Diokno have it for correcting Roque’s speculative statements on the supposed plan to double teachers’ pay.

(Here I must say that the media outlets that ran with the story of Diokno allegedly rejecting the salary-doubling plan were as guilty of cluelessness as Roque was. Diokno, for all his gifts, does not have the power to reject any outlay as budget secretary—all he does is prepare the national expenditure program from the various departments and agencies, consult with the president and his other finance managers on prioritizing these requests for money and implement the provisions of the Congress- and palace-approved national budget.)

As Diokno explained it, the President expressed in a Cabinet meeting his desire to increase the teachers’ pay. Duterte, according to Diokno, never said that he wanted their pay doubled like he did for the men in uniform; that was entirely, by his own later admission, Roque’s speculation.

Before Diokno denied the spokesman’s purely speculative assertion, people assumed that what Roque said was truly what the president wanted. But that was not the case.

Diokno said doubling the teachers’ pay was “impossible” because the government would need P337 billion—nearly 10 percent of the entire budget—just to give it to 880,000 teachers. And yes, Diokno said, the teachers already have pay hikes included in the 2018 budget and more in 2019.

“That was the context,” Diokno, ever the great teacher and explainer, said. “The President never asked to double the teachers’ pay; Harry Roque just interpreted it that way, based on the doubling of the soldiers’ salaries, which had to be done because their pay was so low to begin with.”

The first irony is that Diokno, who merely wanted to correct Roque’s erroneous statements, has now been vilified for being against increasing state teachers’ salaries. The second irony is that a Cabinet member who actually knows what he’s talking about needs to call a press conference just to clarify what the presidential spokesman—who is supposed to understand what he’s putting out in the press—said.

Roque’s indulging in speculation is not at all ironic. That’s just unfortunate, unbecoming of a lawyer and—of course, I’m just speculating here—bad for Roque’s own ambitions down the road.

* * *

Roque, while he admitted to speculating, did not accept that he was in error. What the spokesman basically said was that the media erred by not making it clear that he was speculating, when he had already clearly admitted that he was.

“My statement was, ‘I am not sure how much [is] the increase... judging from the military and police... could be double,” Roque said, according to a report by ABS-CBN. “No mistake there since I said I do not know by how much and speculated only.”

On Tuesday, Roque said Duterte instructed the budget department to find means to increase teachers’ pay as the government prepares for the submission of its second tax reform package to Congress. “[Duterte] did not say how much but he says that they will have to be tangible results of any implementation of the second tax reform package and he said that that should be the increase in teachers’ salary.” 

And then, the money shot: “But judging by what he wanted for the PNP and the AFP, it could be that he is also aiming to double the entry salary for teachers,” Roque said.

What’s painfully obvious is that Roque did not only not have the right information, but he proceeded from having wrong information to speculating on the basis of that. And that’s a surefire way to fail at your job as a spokesman of anybody, especially of the president of the republic.

How difficult would it be for Roque to not to say anything if he’s unsure of what he’s going to say, after all? Whatever happened to telling the media “I’ll get back to you on that as soon as I have something more definite”?

Right now, I think I must say that I have precious little evidence that Roque accepted the spokesman’s post because he intends to leverage it in a run for the Senate next year. But if that is really Roque’s plan, he can’t shoot himself in the foot too often by speculating on what Duterte meant when he doesn’t —and that, I think, is not just idle speculation. 

Topics: Unspokesmanlike speculation

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