[OPINION] A double dare to the government: Take charge of people’s welfare or give up powers

Joy Aceron

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[OPINION] A double dare to the government: Take charge of people’s welfare or give up powers
'If you expect individual citizens and families to take care of themselves...give up some of your powers and resources and redirect them to the people...'

After 3 months, the government is slowly lifting its lockdown policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From a total standstill while the government controlled almost everything in people’s daily lives, movements of people and some economic activities are starting to come back to life starting this week. 

Yet, safety measures and assistance to citizens are not being guaranteed by the government as everyone adjusts and adapts to the new reality, where life needs to go on while a deadly virus is still out there.

On Day 1 of the lifting of the enhanced community quarantine in Metro Manila, people’s access to public transportation was a total disaster. Media reported hundreds of people that struggled to get to work because of lack of transportation. Some had to endure walking for hours just to get to work. Most could no longer observe social distancing. (READ: On their own: Commuters and the looming transportation crisis in Metro Manila)

The reaction of the head of the Metro Manila Development Authority perfectly captures the mindset of the government in easing the lockdown. MMDA General Manager Jose Arturo Garcia blamed the people saying, “They [people] were focused on traveling even though they [knew], just as the Department of Transportation said, our first priority is health and safety.”

The government is passing on the responsibility of health care and safety to individuals and families as it eases the lockdown. It is now up to everyone to avoid getting sick while earning a living. Yet, the government is taking actions at all fronts that aim to consolidate, accumulate, and use more government powers, such as the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill and constitutional change.  

Total control through an act of Congress 

It is important to backtrack to the beginning of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to see just how problematic the government’s disposition is at present. 

Duterte has been granted almost total power to control COVID-19 with the passage of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (RA 11469) on March 24, 2020. The said law provides the President with over-reaching powers and resources. He has the entire government and a total of at least P380 billion at his disposal. The law relaxes checks and accountability, including those placed in procurement to avoid abuse and corruption. 

Along with the Executive’s demand for such considerable powers and resources is the promise that the government will be responsible for containing and stopping COVID-19. The President himself, in his press conference right after the passage of RA 11469, said that through the law, “the Executive Department can move, decide, and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people (and) effectively respond to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.” 

Now up to citizens to take care of themselves

Yet now, after almost 3 months of such enormous powers and huge amount of resources, the Executive is easing the lockdown with the premise that it is now up to individual citizens and families to take care of themselves. 

The national government is not guaranteeing any assistance or safety measures. There is no mass testing. There is no guaranteed public transportation. There is no guaranteed healthcare assistance. There is no social assistance.  

The emergency subsidy program, which is meant to provide assistance to low income families, will end with the second tranche that was supposedly released in May. (READ: As May ends, DSWD unable to release cash aid for 2nd tranche)

The government is not guaranteeing safety and social assistance, yet it expects citizens to go out to work and help keep the economy afloat. 

Further attempt to acquire more power 

On top of this, the government demands more power. It is now trying to pass the Anti-Terrorism Bill that gives enormous discretion to the government that endangers the fundamental rights of citizens, especially activists and media workers.  

Under this proposed measure, a citizen can be arrested even without a warrant of arrest. Today, this is not allowed because it guarantees checks-and-balance among the branches of the government to ensure protection of individual rights and liberty. Only the courts can issue warrants of arrest which is required to arrest a person. That is due process that checks the exercise of authority of the police to avoid abuse. This safeguard will be taken away through the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill. This makes the government more powerful and dangerous, obliterating checks-and-balances to curtail individual rights and freedom. 

The government has asked for more budget, has sought more loans from development banks and partners, is levying additional mandatory payments on overseas Filipino workers and are pushing for the extension of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. The government is demanding more and more powers and resources to this day even as it eases up the lockdown.

Yet, it is shifting accountability to individual citizens and families, not taking it upon itself to guarantee health care, safe work, and safety nets, which all its powers and resources should be able to guarantee. 

This is twisted politics and governance that invites corruption and abuse and normalizes government neglect amid a crisis. 

Weaken the presidency for real transformative institutional reform

If the national government refuses to be responsible in guaranteeing citizen rights and welfare as the country adjusts to our new reality, it should instead pass on some of its power and resources directly to the people, local governments, and social forces.

And since Congress is also tinkering with constitutional amendments (another sign of messed up priorities of a government facing a pandemic), the shifting of powers can also be made official and institutional. This is an opportunity to align legislative priorities with the policy direction of the Executive in terms of what the government is responsible for and not. Congress is claiming to be advancing institutional reforms with its charter change attempts, so why not see how far they are willing to truly fix our broken system.    

“Weakening the presidency” has long been the agenda of progressive groups. The Philippine presidency has enormous powers that is prone to abuse and that undermines the principle of checks-and-balance premised on equal and separate powers of the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Constitutional amendments are needed to correct this fundamental flaw in our institutional-legal design. 

Specifically, to weaken the presidency and strengthen checks-and-balances, the following are some of institutional reforms needed that, along with other political reforms, can strengthen accountability and shift power to the people, social forces, and local governments: 

  • Limit the President’s appointment powers (especially on positions that check the Executive’s powers, such as the judiciary and accountability institutions).

  • Check the Executive’s “power of release” that undermines “power of the purse” of Congress.

  • Provide additional checks to the the president’s use of emergency powers (especially in light of the case of extended declaration of Martial Law in BARMM and the Bayanihan Act).

  • Check the President’s power over local governments to advance true local autonomy and decentralization.

So here is a double dare directed to the President and his men: If you expect individual citizens and families to take care of themselves, if you truly want to advance democratic institutional reforms through charter change, then stop all efforts of the government to accumulate powers (including the attempt to pass the Anti-Terrorism Bill), give up some of your powers and resources and redirect them to the people (starting with the billions for COVID-19 response) and institute constitutional reforms that will transform the presidency into that which observes checks-and-balance. 

Otherwise, own up to the responsibility of taking care of citizen’s welfare and safety as the country adjusts and adopts to the new reality, or resign. – Rappler.com

Joy Aceron is convenor-director of G-Watch and research fellow-adviser at Accountability Research Center


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