By Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President
One sure way an elected official can lose credibility fast is when he fails to deliver on his promises. As the saying goes, you can’t fool all the people all the time. But it is not only the credibility of the elected official that suffers. The public’s trust in government is eroded as well.
Conversely, a fool-proof formula to gain credibility – and much-need political capital – is to deliver on one’s promises, and even exceed them. Underpromise and overdeliver should be the mantra for elected officials, not the other way around. This was our mantra during my term as Makati mayor. It remains the mantra of the current local leadership. We never made promises we cannot deliver and some programs were finished way ahead of the promised time frame. We even surprised our constituents with new benefits and services every year.
We are not saying that dreaming big is a bad thing. A leader is expected to have a grand, sweeping vision for his people and society. Sadly, in most cases the grandeur of the vision is anchored more on billowy rhetoric than hard reality, more sound bites than hard facts. When one “campaigns in poetry,” there is an intrinsic tendency to overpromise without considering the intricacies and seriousness of the problem and the nuances involved in addressing it.
The hard part comes after the election, when one “governs in prose” and the realities of day-to-day governance stares the newly-elected official and his team in the face.
At least, for local officials, the electorate can hold him to account when he faces re-election. This is the public sector equivalent of a stockholders’ meeting where the stockholders – the voters – decide if they want to extend the terms of their elected officials on the basis of credible and tangible performance. For national leaders who fail to make good on their promises, they run the risk of leaving a tarnished legacy.
But as I have said, it is not only the credibility of the leader that suffers when he fails to meet his contract with the people. The public’s trust in government suffers as well. When a grand promise like winning the war against poverty is made with much bombast and bolstered by the infusion of billions in taxpayers’ money but remains unfulfilled at the end of the said official’s term, government gets a bad rap as well. And that is where distrust in government stems from in part: Promises too good to be true foisted on the people by personalities eager for votes. Incredible and unfulfilled promises erode the very credibility of government as an institution in the eyes of the public. They feed public cynicism. And the issue that needs to be addressed is how long government institutions can withstand the erosion of public trust before it breaks down, treated with cynicism if not contempt by the very public it is mandated to serve regardless of the party in power.
Take, for example, the unrealistic promise of decisively ending poverty, which has been framed by succeeding administrations as a war against poverty. It is an enticing proposition to the majority who live in poverty and aspire to escape the misery that has befallen them. Yet the imagery of a war implies a winner and a loser. If we are to judge an administration’s performance by this yardstick, then the inescapable conclusion – given the pervasiveness of poverty up to this time – is that in the war against poverty, to paraphrase a former US president, poverty won.
Another case in point is the promised tax relief which seems to brings no relief at all, judging by the online sentiments expressed by netizens who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of tax reform. This sentiment is reinforced by a statement from no less than the chair of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) that the new tax law will make life harder for an estimated 21 million poor Filipinos.
The NAPC chair is, of course, merely stating the obvious. While the poor will not benefit from tax reforms because they do not pay taxes, the price increases as a result of upward adjustments in excise taxes and the Value Added Tax (VAT) will result in increases of basic goods and commodities. The price hikes will hit both taxpayers and non-taxpayers. Assurances from senior officials of minimal increases in food prices seem to offer no comfort to ordinary citizens.
The outrage – whether unfounded or not – stems from the failure to frame the tax reform law as a bitter pill that would provide discomfort at the start, but will have long-term benefits. It should have been emphasized that paying taxes is an obligation shared by all citizens, taxes being “the price we pay for civilization.” Our previous tax system was clearly iniquitous and needed to be corrected. But the tax reform measure was presented as providing instant relief to taxpayers – a magic pill – and the administration’s main front in the war against poverty.
Of course, the state of discontent goes beyond the failure to properly frame the tax reform law. The actions of some legislators perceived as caving in to vested interests is a valid reason for indignation. Providing for 143 VAT exemptions, said to be the highest in the Asean region, does raise valid questions. There are provisions that obviously favor the rich, such as lower taxes imposed on luxury vehicles (while raising taxes on other vehicle categories catering to the middle classes) and VAT exemptions for homeowners associations and condominum dues.
Promises must be tempered by facts and informed judgment. They must be realistic and doable. Otherwise, we will always have citizens outraged by yet another act of perceived duplicity and government seriously weakened by distrust.