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[OPINION] No charter change during pandemic

Dean Tony La Viña

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[OPINION] No charter change during pandemic
'It is tone deaf on the part of government to create campaigns that will further divide its populace, especially during a pandemic'

I am not against charter change. In fact, I have supported for many years campaigns to change our constitutional form of government as a way of reforming our politics and expanding the Bill of Rights to include socio-economic provisions. Among others, I have co-written a book that identified best practices for changing the constitution. But while open to charter change, it is obvious to me that it is foolish and reckless to attempt to change the constitution in the time of a pandemic.

Unfortunately, the Duterte administration, through the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), went live with, a campaign to revise the 1987 Constitution. This has the aim of gathering two million signatures by July 2020, and the further objective to transmit the said results to Congress in order to have the two houses pass the proposals. 

Two of the most important proposals enshrined in the campaign, dubbed Constitutional Reform (CORE), are the changes to the economic provisions in Sections 6 and 14 of Article X of the Constitution, and the subsequent potential shift to federalism.

It should be noted that Interior Secretary Año has denied that he was behind the initiative to gather the signatures. Senators have rejected it and some members of the House of Representatives have already decried such a move, for various reasons. Most telling is the statement by Representative Rufus Rodriguez, the Chair of the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments, who has asked to shelve the charter change proposals while the country is facing a pandemic. (READ: House panel chair to DILG: ‘Cha-Cha can wait’)

I agree with Rodriguez, who like me comes from Cagayan de Oro and whom I know to be brilliant, patriotic, and politically smart.  I believe that to carry on a charter campaign today is absolutely insensitive and extremely foolish. It is tone deaf on the part of government to create campaigns that will further divide its populace, especially during a pandemic. It will distract from the hard work to be done to keep our people safe and our economy afloat.

Economic liberalization as unilateral surrender

As the country and the rest of the world slowly transition into a new way of life, it is important to look into the potential consequences of such moves to change the Constitution. In fact, one need only to look at the things happening currently to know that changing salient provisions of the Constitution is not the most prudent thing to do.

Firstly, the economic provisions necessarily leave the Philippines and its citizens at a disadvantage. Removing the provisions on Filipino ownership will leave the country’s resources vulnerable, particularly with China taking interest in many of the Philippines’ assets. The United States might even be involved, and with escalating tensions between the US and China because of its trade war, then the Philippines might end up finding itself in the middle of two competing superpowers. By opening many essential services to foreign investors, we stand to lose. Coupled with federalism, there is a bigger tendency to further divide the already fragmented country.

Even before the pandemic, as a resource person to the Rodriguez Committee, I reiterated my long-standing opposition of allowing foreigners to own land and utilize our natural resources as a matter of social and environmental justice. That’s an absolute barrier we should keep in place if we do not want to exacerbate social conflict and insurgency. And for the rest of the economy, I have argued that we should wait until the global economic chaos we are seeing – where there is right-wing, nationalist, and populist pushback against globalization – settles. We must not unilaterally disarm by liberalizing our economy at a time of great global turmoil. 

The advent of the pandemic has made economic liberalization even riskier. Without government support, many Filipino companies and businesses are headed to bankruptcy and collapse. It does not take rocket science to guess which people in our East Asia region are in the wings ready to buy at bargain prices and take over these enterprises and dominate our economy.

Federalism not an option now

Regarding the issue of federalism, the local governments’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is very telling of what it would be like if we shifted into a federal government. In legal parlance, the term “res ipsa loquitur” comes to mind: let the thing speak for itself. Local government units are already doing their own thing, though admittedly some are doing better than others. 

It is again disturbing that the DILG proposal weakens local government units at this time when we want very strong LGUs. This is paradoxical as one of the reasons for the shift to federalism is to get the government closer to the people, to shift decision making to the unit of government that is most proximate to the issues to be decided, and this is usually the local government. But the creation of regional governments, as envisioned in the proposal, runs counter to this objective. The proposed concept of federalism that inserts a region as equal to a federal entity is bad for local governments and their autonomy. It threatens their existence, in fact, and most likely will reverse the gains achieved in our mixed experience of the Local Government Code. Local governments could be completely destroyed and its status, role, powers, and revenue powers subjected to the whims of regions.

There is also the enormous costs for shifting to federalism. It is money that we do not have and will not have for a long time.

Transitioning into federalism will only hamper the good already done by local governments and exacerbate the disastrous results of inefficient governance, which will take place if the proposal to give the RDCs more power. It could also potentially lead to more abuse, particularly corruption. (READ: [OPINION] Why federalism won’t work with political dynasties in power)

Priorities during and beyond the pandemic

We are currently in the midst of a global pandemic, and the end is far from sight, particularly because of the lack of mechanisms by government to address the issue, such as mass testing and giving more budget to healthcare centers to strengthen their capacities.

I firmly believe that holding the campaign today will only serve to divide the country: both its fiscal resources and its people. The fight against the pandemic is a bigger concern to everyone and should receive the government’s highest attention.

In an already divided country socio-economically and politically, charter change will, instead of bringing the country together, divide us even more. In my view, and I say this as a long-time charter change advocate, we should set aside the work on constiutonal change for 5 to 10 years. There will be a right time but not now.

The government should instead be focused on responding to the crisis instead of pushing for this campaign. The Duterte government should focus on the more important things right now – battling the pandemic, and ensuring that the Filipinos citizens are alive, well, with access to healthcare, and safe. That will surely unite and not divide us. –

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