According to United Nations Women, “Women's political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy.” GRACE PADACA has served as the Governor of Isabela Province from 2004 to 2010 and as a Commissioner in the Philippine Commission on Elections from 2012 to 2014. She is one of the many women public servants who have received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s premier prize and highest honor. In this article, PADACA shares her sentiments on Jacinda Ardern’s resignation as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.
I just finished a Zoom session with college students taking up Public Administration when I tuned in to CNN and learned that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was bowing out of public office. Moments before, my interviewers and I were talking about the challenges of a non-traditional politician fighting for good governance.
The two lady college students were amused when I told them that my being a CPA or Certified Public Accountant took on a different meaning when I became Governor of the Province of Isabela for two terms or a period of 6 years. I called myself a CPA—Curacha Po Ako, Ang Babaeng Walang Pahinga (the woman who does not rest). “The sheer volume of work” was my answer to their question about what I consider as the most difficult part of being the leader of Isabela Province. It is not everyday that someone like me who has walked with a polio-caused limp since three and with no political background will have access and authority over millions of government funds in order to direct it to the real needs of the people. I resolved to use every chance and opportunity to make the government truly work for the good of those who voted for me to become Isabela's governor after 40 years of a political dynasty.
This took a heavy toll on me. My friends began to see a side of me that they never knew before. I had more patience as ordinary Grace, I did not get angry as easily, I was not as strict. I myself also recognized the changes that were happening to my personality. In fact, I beat the people closest to me by referring to myself as “The devil who wears crutches.” I had to go see a counselor and she said that there was a certain rage within me. I think it was more pressure than rage—the pressure to prove to others and to myself that our people were getting from me their money’s worth . It may also have been partially caused by the fact that for 14 years before I became our province’s first ever woman-Governor, I was a hard-hitting journalist. I did a lot of investigative reports about people in government who did not serve as seriously, fairly and competently as they should have. I set out to never be like them.
I spent every day discussing important concerns with my co-workers in government, listening to and looking over the needs of the needy, poring over documents to help me make the best decisions, carefully handling financial matters to ensure that not a single cent was lost to corruption. After office hours, I would take my dinner alone while watching the evening news. I would be so tired that I would automatically fall asleep. At eleven in the evening, I would wake up and that was when I would go over numerous requests to approve, checks to sign, schedules to confirm. I would finally go to bed at 2:00 am and wake up early in the morning to record my daily radio program which was one of the most effective ways by which I communicated with our people: by hearing things directly from me.
The even harder part of being a leader is being subjected to the harshest criticisms—on a daily basis. It was to be the constant “reward” that I’d get from all the punishing work. When the time came for me to file my certificate of candidacy for the next elections, I was shedding tears while filling up the forms, asking myself, “Why am I doing this again fully knowing that I would have to endure three more years of this grueling responsibility?”
That is why I fully understand and empathize with Jacinda Ardern when she said that her tank has been depleted—that she is also human. I get it when people who have seen her work endlessly heard for themselves the scathing judgments of people and political opponents. She said she always tried to be kind and that ultimately, “we want people to be attracted to politics, we want people to want to do the job.”
Certainly, Jacinda is not referring to the incumbents—the kind of people in government who never want to let others do the job—those who, generation after generation, have felt so entitled to not ever let go of the power and the perks of the public office that they have abused for so long. Jacinda would have wanted more of the similarly able and service-oriented as she to be in public office so that the resources of government are sure to be handled well.
If one is interested not so much to “take” from the government but to “give” one’s self to it, the tank can truly be easily emptied. It is clear that Jacinda dreamed that ordinary people like her would step up to do the noble job of governing. There is a better chance of that happening in New Zealand than in the Philippines where political dynasties have been spreading and taking over like gremlins.
Filipinos are farther from realizing the ideal of genuine democracy but we cannot stop hoping and working towards it. I have done it once in our province—I, who grew up being seen as even less than ordinary. We should never ever accept that the government is a monopoly of the few. Instead, we should help bring to power those who genuinely care for us and who know humbly enough when the tank is no more and “it is time to go”. That is why Jacinda is calling for more of us to conquer the merciless few.
GRACE PADACA received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's premier prize and highest honor, in 2008 for "her empowering voters in the Philippines' Isabela Province to reclaim their democratic right to elect leaders of their own choosing and to contribute as full partners in their own development."