What does the ‘pork barrel’ scam suggest about the Philippine government?

photo_1355831778371-1-HDThe social media-driven #MillionPeopleMarch is by far the biggest popular protest faced by President Benigno Aquino III since he took office in 2010. It was attended by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos from all walks of life, with most of the protesters coming from the middle class.  The protest was staged during the National Heroes Day, an official holiday in the country. During that day, the situation in Luneta Park was uncommon. An outraged crowd was unfurling banners, expressing indignation, and demanding for the full abolition of the legislators’ pork barrel.

The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), more popularly called as the pork barrel, is the lump sum discretionary fund allotted to members of Congress for spending on priority development projects. Once again, the pork barrel becomes the center of controversy for the umpteenth time. A whistleblower divulged that the anomaly was orchestrated by one Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman who is accused of embezzling Php 10billion in the PDAF. It is alleged that some legislators endorsed the transfer of money to bogus nongovernment organizations managed by Napoles.

By and large, this present case of conspiracy and public fraud reflects not only the type of government the country has but also the apparent situation of millions of Filipinos who are under this type of leadership.

“Where do our taxes go?”

My elder sister had a hearty laugh after chancing upon a witty Facebook meme. The meme shows a typical employee’s pay slip including a list of salary deductions. In the pay slip, Napoles gets a place in the roster of these deductions. The meme may not be far from reality. My sister is encumbered by the present pork barrel scam since she is a taxpayer herself. Similar sentiments are also shared by all Filipino workers and employees who toil hard to ensure subsistence for their families.Some creative rally posters from the #MillionPeopleMarch posed this question: “Saan ba napupunta ang aming buwis?”(Where do our taxes go?). For a minimum wage-earner whose salary is downright inadequate to cope with the rising cost of living, this is more of a critical rather than rhetorical question which needs to be answered. While it is the responsibility of the employed sector to pay taxes, it is the foremost duty of the government to ensure that these taxes go to where they should go. The system of taxation carries with it a mutual responsibility and benefit: citizens bear the pecuniary brunt of providing financial support to the government for its expenditures, and money provided by taxation is used by the government to carry out its functions.

It is therefore crucial that taxpayers are given assurance of two things: (1) Taxes are being utilized judiciously, not capriciously, and (2) Benefits from the taxes should be felt by the greater majority, not by only privileged few. If the government fails to assure taxpayers of these things, both the system of taxation and the government are doomed to fail as the people will lose their trust to their leaders.

The abolition of the pork

One of the outcries of the #MillionPeopleMarch mob is the abolition of the pork barrel and the rechanneling of the pork barrel funds to basic social services. The protesters reason out that the pork barrel has long been a source of corruption in the government and is used by some legislators for personal gain.The abolition of the pork barrel draws both critics and supporters alike. The critics mainly argue that it is fallacious to conclude that all pork barrel is misused. In the provinces, the district representatives are usually the people’s last resort for their urgent needs. As a necessary component of a republican system, the pork barrel is directly beneficial to the people as priority projects can be funded by the legislator’s PDAF allocation. While the pork barrel can be used favorably,supporters of the abolition point out that the pork barrel system is generally anomalous as legislators could easily manipulate their PDAF spending to pursue self interest and not the public interest. In its place, they recommend that the pork barrel be rechanneled to basic social service appropriations to keep away from the legislators’ potential manipulation.

I stand in the supporters’ side but I got some additions to their arguments. While putting an end to it is essential, scrapping the PDAF system alone is insufficient. The power of the lawmakers to appropriate funds for abuse-prone local projects must likewise be removed. Since it is largely governed by the lawmaker’s discretion, the pork barrel is likely used as a source of fund for spearheading projects willfully aimed to please voters and win votes. This is why I think it best to transfer the pork barrel fund directly to various frontline agencies which have the mandate to craft and implement plans for development of local governments. In this way, the public will still benefit from the fund only that this time, dubious transactions and allocations will be gotten rid of.

Public office as a public trust

Government officials need not go further but be reminded of what Article 14 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states: “Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.” In ademocracy, the people put its trust to their government because they expect it to be their role model for, and protector of, equality, freedom, and their human rights. The people choose their government; this is why the latter is accountable to the former. Thus, the government must ensure that the power vested upon it is not abused. The abuse of power results to serious consequences which will not only undermine the government as an institution, but also the entire constituency.

It appears that the proclivity of some corrupt officials to mislead the Filipino people and their lack of accountability are just a norm within the government. If the government is quick to impose criminal sanctions for those who deliberately evade taxes and swift to throw demonstrators out of their picket lines, the government should also be prompt to prosecute erring officials who are using public funds to further private interests. I daresay that the Filipinos deserve more than this type of governance. The Filipinos deserve a government with genuine political will, responsive of the people’s needs, and willing to act as a true bastion of the people’s rights and welfare.

 

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 11 September 2013. To read the articles written by my colleagues, just click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/publications/blog-a-different-view/articles

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