When President Benigno Aquino 3rd delivers his 4th state of the nation address on July 22, he will be surrounded by politicians and their spouses who are dressed in their best barongs or suits and gowns.
These are the same men and women who dressed down during the campaign to win votes. Most of them showed their oneness with the masses, and promised to serve their interests. After winning, they are showing their true colors, until the next campaign season.
In his first SONA in 2010, the President himself declared that the Filipinos were his bosses (masters), and he vowed to work for their welfare. His critics were expected to say he has failed to do so in his first three years in office, and they’re not upbeat about the remaining three years of his term.
Now that a new set of politicians have started a fresh three-year term, it’s time to keep tab of what they’re doing, or not doing. It’s payback time. They owe us—voters and taxpayers —public service, unless they cheated to win, in which case, they owe their winning to somebody else.
While they officially assumed office a week ago, July 22 is the first day of the session of Congress. The Constitution mandates that Congress assemble jointly every third week of July to listen to the President’s report on the state of the nation.
What happens during the annual joint session of Congress for the President’s SONA seems to reflect the real state of our nation. The SONA becomes a fashion show event to many in public office, particularly the ladies donning attention-drawing gowns by famous couturiers.
Even those representing cause-oriented party-list organizations dress up for this once a year occasion. But there are also a few who dress simply, and they don’t get into the limelight.
Perhaps, the SONA is the best time to remind public officials, both in elective and appointive positions, about the principle of simple living as provided in the Constitution and Republic Act No. 6713, or the Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
The Constitution’s Article XI, Section 1 on Accountability of Public Officers says: Public office is a public trust. Public officials and employees must at all times serve the people with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.
Section 27, Article II on Declaration of Principles and State Policies provides: The State shall maintain honesty and integrity in the public service and take positive and effective measures against graft and corruption.
Section 4 of RA 6713 institutionalizes the policy on simple living: Officials and employees and their families shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.
But wait, news about the President’s acquisition of a Porsche, even if it was second-hand, would not make him a credible talking head about modest living. Presidential celebrity-sister Kris and her open preference for anything branded would make his even less credible. Vice President Jejomar Binay? I don’t think so! The Supreme Court justices? I doubt.
If you enjoy seeing expensive cars passing by, the driveway of the Batasan main lobby during the SONA day is the place to be. That’s where elected and appointed public servants in their best Barong Tagalog, suits and gowns are dropped off. People they commit to serve are out in the streets, sweating as they are shouting anti-government slogans, and fighting to get through a phalanx of policemen and soldiers to keep them as far away as possible from where the “servants” are assembled.
These public servants include a lawmaker who foot the $20,000 dinner bill of the presidential entourage at Le Cirque in New York and another who paid $15,000 dinner for the same group at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Washington, DC in 2009.
If these were the examples of living “modest lives” we see from government leaders, perhaps a Constitutional amendment is necessary to re-define Section 1, Article XI.
Or, an honest-to-goodness lifestyle check on public officials is in order. Lifestyle check is a character test for public officials: are they consistently upright in the way they perform their duties and earn their living? Lavish lifestyles of officials have become sources of public anger.
But if those who should conduct lifestyle check also live extravagantly, should we just stare at them as we continue to live in poverty?
In 1986, one of the issues against the Marcoses, particularly then First Lady Imelda Marcos, was their extravagant lifestyle amid the poverty among most Filipinos. Just a few years later, the former president’s wife and children are back and still are in choice public positions.
In 2001, then President Joseph Estrada was forced to step down following allegations of corruption, including issues about his extravagant mansions for his mistresses. But many Filipino voters seem to be very forgiving and have short memories. Estrada is back in politics as mayor of Manila.
The message in the first inaugural speech in 1801 of US President Thomas Jefferson remains relevant, and worth pondering on: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”