MANILA - Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go on Thursday joined the chorus of lawmakers in criticizing delays in giving cash benefits for health workers who died from the coronavirus, but refused interpellations, a rare request at the chamber's plenary.
Before delivering the statement, Go told senators that he would not be taking questions about his privilege speech, noting that is was this prerogative as a lawmaker.
President Rodrigo Duterte made it clear that he is against red tape and yet several officials did not act expeditiously on the release of a P1 million compensation for health workers who died from COVID-19 and P100,000 for those who were critically ill, Go said, without naming particular officials.
"Ito 2 months na wala pa din. Bakit matagal? Sadya bang pinapatagal? Wala bang gumagalaw sa inyo?" Go, who heads the Senate health committee, said during the chamber's hybrid session.
(It has been two months, and still nothing. Why is it taking too long? Is there deliberate delay? Is no one taking action among you?)
"Ngayon na-expose na ang problema, mag-iissue kayo ng joint issuance? Kung kailan kayo pinuna dun lang ninyo tatawagan ang mga kamag-anak ng namatay? Hindi naman siguro kayo mga bata para pagsabihan pa ano ang gagawin na mga tama," he said.
(Now that the problem has been exposed, you issue a joint issuance? Just when you have been called out, that's the time you call relatives of those who died? You are no longer children to be told how to do what's right.)
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier told ABS-CBN News that the release of the benefit, guaranteed under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, was delayed as the Department of Labor and Employement and Department of Budget and Management have yet to file their comments to a Joint Administrative Order.
"Our health workers are doing one of the most difficult jobs against an unseen enemy. They have paid the ultimate price of their lives so the rest of our countrymen and women will live," Go said.
"Kung kayo ang mamatayan at pahirapan ang pagbibigay ng tulong sa inyo tulad ng ginagawa ninyo? Ewan ko na lang kung hindi kayo mamatay sa sama ng loob," he said.
(If you are the ones who lose loved ones and have a hard time getting help like what you're doing? I'm not sure if you won't die out of offense.)
Since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, 32 health workers have died of the coronavirus, including 26 physicians, 4 nurses, and 2 non-medical staff. Two others are critically ill.
After Go's privilege speech, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon inquired about his refusal to answer questions.
"It is the privilege of the gentleman from Davao not to take questions of interpellations... I just want to know if this is the new normal, Mr. President?" Drilon asked the Senate leadership after "extending his commendation and congratulations" to Go, a staunch administration ally and Senate neophyte.
"The Senate has always been known as the arena where the national policies of government are debated either through law or through resolutions or through privilege speeches. That is when theories are tested and policies are debated," Drilon said.
Sotto affirmed Drilon's statement that it was Go's prerogative not to take questions, but added that "it was never the practice not to entertain questions or interpellations anytime to take the floor."
"But usually in practice, when you rise, you have to answer the questions. You have to allow yourself to be interpellated," the Senate President said.
"Perhaps the gentleman from Davao should be advised that next time he should allow it. Although we cannot force anyone to yield the floor when he rises, unfortunately," he said.
Drilon yielded to Sotto's explanation, saying: "I recognize parliamentary rules. I recognize privileges of the senator on the floor and we could not question that. We just wanted to know if it is the new normal."
"I don't think it is," Sotto said.
Go thanked Drilon and said that his "observation is duly noted."
"Thank you for the reminder, but it depends on the issue if I am willing to be interpellated," Go said.
"Remember we are all senators here. We are elected by the people. We are all senators. I am not your student and you are not my proctor," he said.
Drilon did not reply, but was seen giving a straight face after Go's comment.
PREVIOUS REFUSAL TO BE INTERPELLATED
Sotto said the refusal to take questions while in plenary has only happened "once or twice before" when then senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago "did not want to be interpellated" during the chamber's debate on the Reproductive Health bill.
"It was not because she was not capable of answering our questions, it was just because she refused to talk to Sen. [Juan Ponce] Enrile," he said.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, who backed the Reproductive Health bill in the Senate, said Defensor-Santiago did not want to be interpellated because the former was the sponsor of the bill.
"It's probably because alam niya namang nandun ako para sumagot nung nagtatanong kayo," Cayetano said, smiling at the fond memory of the late Defensor-Santiago.
(It's probably because I was there to answer questions.)
Drilon said it was a "peculiar instance" because Defensor-Santiago, who died in 2016 after a long bout with lung cancer, "was already suffering from an ailment at that time."
The Senate President said it was normal for senators to clash during sessions.
"We shout at each other on the floor but after the gavel is banged, we even hug each other and are friendly," Sotto said.
"We just take it in strides. We are veteran legislators here," he said.