Regaining the people’s trust

As a rule, people almost everywhere tend to be distrustful of their politicians. So long as the rest of the government functions smoothly, however, this skepticism hardly affects the nation’s social system as a whole.

But, one can imagine to what new depths the trust ratings of Filipino congressmen and senators have sunk in the wake of recent revelations of how brazenly many of them pocketed their pork barrel allocations. The Napoles scam has tainted not just two or three big politicians but the entire Congress itself. Congress emerges from this sordid episode as no more than a confederation of thieves with no shame, conscience, or honor.

Dire as it is, this state of affairs does not necessarily lead to political paralysis. For, in truth, it is hard to shake off the force of habit. It is likely that most of us will abide by the new national budget as soon as it is approved, even if we know that a big part of it might be stolen again.

People do not stop obeying the laws just because they cannot respect the crooks who made them. And, indeed, come election time, they will probably reelect the same rogues.

Be that as it may, I do not remember a time when the integrity of the whole political class has been so questioned. That is why I think we have come to a new stage in our growth as a nation. If the outrage over this conspiratorial raiding of the public coffers is sustained, this turbulent phase may yet produce enduring changes in our political life. So deep and pervasive is the public suspicion hanging over our current crop of lawmakers that it is reasonable to assume, as Peter Wallace has passionately argued in his column, that everyone who has served as a legislator in this country in the last 10 years is probably guilty unless proven innocent.

At the moment, all eyes are on the legal system. If it fails to do its job—i.e., resolutely pursue the cases, particularly against the lawmakers, without fear or favor—then we may be facing another severe political crisis.

Lawmakers who have availed themselves of the pork barrel, but used their allotments honestly, can do something positive for the nation by voluntarily offering detailed reports of how they used their Priority Development Assistance Fund for every year they were in office. They must provide straightforward justifications of every single project they recommended. They must provide the dates, the places, and the beneficiaries of these projects, plus the government offices or agencies or NGOs through which they channeled the funds.

They can take out newspaper space or post these reports in their websites or Facebook accounts. They may also post these reports on the community bulletin boards of the exclusive neighborhoods in which most of them reside. (Indeed, their neighbors have every right to expect or demand this of them.) The information they provide must be complete and specific enough to allow for independent verification or checking.

Until they do this, they have to bear the collective stigma of corruption that the pork barrel scam has heaped upon the whole institution of Congress. Of course, many lawmakers might choose to keep silent in the mistaken belief they have no duty to explain unless they are formally charged. But it doesn’t look like the public out there will allow them to do that.

Every day that passes, new photos of Napoles beaming in the company of her politician-clients are bound to be circulated. But, more than this, we have seen how people are quickly connecting the dots based on data released by government agencies like the Commission on Audit and the Department of Budget and Management.

We are seeing how students all over the country are taking a new interest in government. This is active citizenship at work.

Instead of the usual trivial topics they write about for their undergraduate theses and term papers, students are now doing great analysis using secondary data to show how our dysfunctional political system maintains itself.

From there, they will want to go further by writing to their district or party-list representatives asking for a full accounting of the projects on which they used the funds allotted to them. Students of public administration or business can undertake case studies of PDAF-funded projects for the purpose of drawing important lessons on how to build accountability and transparency into systems of governance. They may want to investigate why some types of projects have been preferred over others, and how pork barrel operatives managed to override the control systems of government at various points.

Some may follow the trail of the bogus NGOs that have been identified as the favored conduits for legislators’ PDAF—from their inception as organizations registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission to their establishment as regular partners of government implementing agencies. Sociology students can do ethnographies of the pork barrel system and patronage, showing the ties of loyalty and dependence that bind constituents to their traditional political leaders. Students of economics can pick up the money trail and find out where the money actually went, how it was apportioned, and what benefits it could have brought to marginalized communities if it had been rationally spent.

When citizens lose what little trust they have in their political representatives, they also lose their taste for politics. That is when they become receptive to the seductions of authoritarianism. We must not allow this to happen; we should not give up trying to make politics work for the common good. For this, we need to nurture not only leaders of integrity but also citizens who are unafraid to make their public officials accountable.

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