Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The President's salary

The word salary is taken from the name of the stuff that marine biologists, like this writer, taste every day, salt. Salarium, means the amount of money paid to a Roman soldier to buy salt. Salt in the Roman Empire was expensive since it was imported from Africa and in the age of no refrigerators, it was essential in preserving food. The nomadic herders of the Sahara had the monopoly and controlled the price. Thus the salarium really can't buy much salt.

And thus began the ancient tradition of demanding salary increases. Now that we are on the topic, the Philippine Congress is considering a bill that will at least double the salaries of civil servants (yours truly included!). The rationale is that by increasing salaries, the government could attract talented and skilled people.

You may accuse me of bias but I honestly believe that this is about time. The government service is the most important sector a citizen deals with everyday. As like anyone in service oriented jobs, civil servants should be justly compensated.

(BTW, I entered the government service from the international private sector. Some people thought that was extremely stupid!)

So it is of interest that we comment on the proposal that the President's salary must be raised at least twice the current rate. OK let's dish out the facts.

The President is really an employee. She is a public sector employee and like all employees, she is entitled to the usual benefits all employees get like social security (GSIS), 13th month bonus, sick, vacation, maternity leaves and health insurance. She is also subject to rules governing civil servants. And so if Congress passes a law increasing salaries of civil servants,then she should get a raise.

Wrong. Article VII,Section 6 of the 1987 Constitution has this to say

Section 6. The President shall have an official residence. The salaries of the President and Vice-President shall be determined by law and shall not be decreased during their tenure. No increase in said compensation shall take effect until after the expiration of the term of the incumbent during which such increase was approved. They shall not receive during their tenure any other emolument from the Government or any other source.

So if her salary is to be increased, it would be her successor that would enjoy it.

But really what is interesting is the popular outcry against increasing the President's salary. If the President is a civil servant, why are people bothered about her commensurate pay? The public has no idea how much she gets. I think this should be public knowledge.

Obviously it is in the hows and wheres of electing the Chief Executive. People think corruption is the only way to elect the President. So they think she is swimming in dirty cash!

This is a reflection of what kind of democracy we have. Ours hasn't matured to the extent that we believe that the President is entitiled to the same rights as any employee has.

In more mature democracies like the UK, Australia and Canada and even the USA, the Prime Minister (even the Monarch) or President is entitled to vacations and other usual perks. Tony Blair went on paternity leave when his child was born.

People separate their personal worth from the resources their offices have. They separate the person from the office.

Example 1: The Queen of the United Kingdom is definitely rich by all standards. Her personal wealth is taxed by her own volition (in theory she is her own taxman, ooops woman!). The Crown Jewels don't belong to her own person, but to the Crown (her office and the State). BTW, the Queen and her family get a sort of salary in the performance of their duties. This is "the Civil List"which is determined by Parliament.

Example 2: Pope Benedict XVI doesn't own St Peter's basilica and all the treasures within. It belongs to the Church. (Even if we tend to think the Pope is the Church!). The Vatican says the Pope doesn't get paid a salary.

It will really take time before we Filipinos will get to that stage of democratic development where we can distinguish between the person and the office. But we will get there only if our elected officials act professionally according to their contract with the electorate.

But of course all members of the civil service get some perks unique to their job. The Prez gets her own official residence (a palace to boot!). While she is only in a temp job (the Presidency is a temp job according to Dave), all other civil servants get more job security (Civil servants anywhere in the world cannot be easily fired. Among the government employees with the greatest job security are the Vatican employees. In theory the Cardinals running the Vatican government can fire them, but in practice the men in Red hats can't do it since they are priests. They'd rather hear the employees' confessions!)

Also the bonuses that pop up then and now provide joy to civil servants (incentive pay, merit pay, hazard pay, etc). If a private company adopts these practices, it would go bankrupt!

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