Thoughts about charter change

President Rodrigo Duterte didn’t mention his administration’s proposed shift to federalism in his 4th State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 22, leading the opposition’s leader in the Senate to interpret it as the initiative finally being “laid to rest.” 

Senate Minority Leader Franklin spoke (rejoiced?) too soon. Duterte’s alter egos – Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who chairs the Interagency Task Force for Federalism and Constitutional Reform, and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles – said the campaign for constitutional reform remains a priority of the President, and their activities around it would continue.  

We called it in the pre- and post-election briefings we did exclusively for members of the Rappler PLUS community: the efforts to revise the 1987 Constitution to effect a shift to a federal system of government will continue, and can have better chances, after the 2019 midterm elections – regardless of whether or not critics of the administration or the initiative would come to terms with it. 

I won’t be weighing the pros and cons in this newsletter – we, journalists and stakeholders, will all have to contribute to the debate in this continuing coverage. I just have a few thoughts to share, based on my experience covering and following initiatives like this for more than a couple of decades (I started during the people’s initiative in 1996-1997 to allow then-president Fidel Ramos to seek a second term.) 

1. Despite what the Constitution says, there are only two modes available for changing the fundamental law. These are an elected constitutional convention and a constituent assembly, which is the current Congress. There’s a 3rd mode provided in the Constitution, people’s initiative, but the Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that there is no enabling law for it yet. The Court says the Republic Act 6735 or The Initiative and Referendum Act of 1989 is just for local initiatives and not for national ones, let alone the Constitution. 

To correct that shortcoming, then-Samar congressman Eduardo Nachura (one of the few sober-minded experts on constitutional reform that I’ve listened to) filed a bill envisioned to become the enabling law for that 3rd mode of changing the Constitution. It didn’t prosper. 

 

2. When talking about the proposed changes to the Constitution, let’s not confuse or interchange “amendment” and “revision.” Amendments are minor or piecemeal changes or additions – like, in 1996, when proponents wanted to lift the one-term limit on the President. A revision means altering or totally rewriting the entire document – like what the Duterte administration is proposing now, wanting to tinker with all the moving parts. 

As citizens, are we opposed to the revision, or to particular amendments only? As journalists, are we and our resource persons on the same page when we’re trying to explain to the public specific proposals and the support or opposition to them? 

 

3. There are several draft constitutions being passed around by various groups, but let’s focus on what Congress is deliberating on – because ultimately, that is what our lawmakers will be voting on, and that will be taken up in the national plebiscite, should the campaign reach that stage. If we want to scrutinize the proposals, the best way to do that is to focus on the drafts that are in the House and Senate committees tackling constitutional reforms. Any proposal, regardless of merits, will be of no use if it’s not even in the radar of the legislators.  

When studying the drafts, don’t just look at how they are proposing to change the system, look for how they propose to do it. In other words, see if the transitory provisions are realistic and feasible. Admittedly, among the drafts I’m familiar with, the one from the PDP-Laban Institute is so far the most sensible, because it considers the way the government is currently organized and tries not to drastically change that under a federal setup. But that draft doesn’t have transitory provisions. (Watch my interview with PDP-Laban Institute’s head, now Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Malaya: Rappler Talk: Federalism in PH – What Duterte’s party is proposing.) 

 

4. So much attention has been focused on Congress: how the House of Representatives so quickly approved the draft federal constitution the last time, and how the Senate will supposedly have none of it. (I hate to break this, but the Senate of the 17th Congress only said there was no time to discuss it anymore since they were adjourning soon. When the 18th Congress opened last Monday, we already have a Senate where a good two-thirds belong to political dynasties, which a federal setup will inevitably strengthen.) 

What many observers are neglecting is the fact that, ultimately, charter change will be the local governments’ and the voters’ show. In the event a new constitution passes both chambers of Congress, that will be submitted to the people for a plebiscite. And we all know who’s directly in contact with – and in command of – voters in electoral campaigns. They are the local officials whom President Duterte will meet soon specifically to talk about charter change and federalism.

Until next Wednesday! Email me your thoughts at miriamgracego@rappler.com. If you want to help Rappler pursue in-depth reports on specific sectors and issues, you can donate to our investigative fund here. You can also engage me on Twitter via @miriamgracego and follow the stories I share on Facebook. – Rappler.com