Not subject to audit is the new norm

The proliferation of confidential funds has reached a fragile state that has rendered it to a point of illegitimacy, despite the joint memorandum circular allowing it. It may be allowed, but it is severely critiqued by the general public. It has become illegitimate. Studies have shown that when the state resorts to illegitimate means, coercion takes over public consent.

Public discourses on confidential funds, for example, are raising valid questions such as — what matters more to those who govern, their political interests or the legitimacy of the state? A basic question to ask at this crucial time – will the use of confidential funds automatically result in improved state performance? The prevailing public belief is that confidential funds will be used for a politician’s self-preservation, among other sordid possibilities for 2025 and 2028.

Politicians must remember that public perception will always hound them. In the Philippines, there is no clear distinction between public-private spheres. For example, the term “Office of the Vice President” is not publicly understood as a state agency dispensing a mandate (that serves the public trust) but rather a person by the name of Sara Duterte. Our idea of governance is personality-ascribed.

There is a raging uproar against confidential funds. But is that uproar striking fear in government? Instead, the peoples’ perception of what is right governance vis-à-vis the peoples’ material interests do not appear to move government actors to act rightly. When government is callous, civil society is rendered weaker, divided as it already is by hyperpartisan political interests controlled by mercenarian trolling.

The behaviors of those who sit in office also contribute greatly to that misinformation. Questioned for her use of confidential funds, Sara reacted personally by making public her fit of temper tantrum against those who demanded her sense of prudence, if any. Her onion-skinned responses to criticisms only reinforce the personalan syndrome of Philippine politics.

The questioning happened in the course of constitutionally prescribed parameters for the fiscalizing duty of congress to check the disbursement of public funds. Instead, Sara reacted as though the money belonged to her and that she does not want accountability over its use. Clearly, France Castro and Risa Hontiveros were the ones who did their constitutionally sworn duties.

But what do the troll-influenced masa think who mistake temper tantrums as political will? The bully who gets scared of questions about her use of public funds does not have political will. But the masa of a weak state like ours finds that all right.

Transparency and accountability in a cash-poor country like the Philippines where 25% of its national budget (2.207 Trillion) is borrowed money are significant factors of governance. Confidential funds contradict transparency. Lowering the quality of being accountable damages public trust.

The Philippines is a poor country because of massive corruption. Temper that with the popular belief that confidential funds may amount to confidential stealing, and it becomes a powerful driver of distrust of government.

The public is on the right track by counting how many government agencies now make use of confidential funds, even if these are not state surveillance or national security agencies. The list has become ridiculously longer.

In fact, the list is a shocker – 30 government agencies now want secret funds, only a few of which are national security and surveillance agencies.

Department of Education, P150M; Department of Agriculture, P50M; Office of the Vice President, P500M; Department of Information and Communications Technology, P300M; Ombudsman, P51.4M, up from P31M in the 2023 budget; Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, P100M in 2023; with other agencies, altogether for a whopping total of P9.2B.

The Philippines is pretending that it is not a corrupt country. In fact, it is ridiculous not to think that funds not subject to audit are gateways to more corruption. Moderation of greed is not a value in our political system.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.