Federalism and Charter Change: All Politics in the News
by Ana Catalina Paje
A quick review of Duterte’s Project Federalism shows up the idea as a campaign promise which served as an excuse for the politician from Davao to tour the country. In 2015, the candidate seemed to be uninterested in running for the presidency. Undeclared as a presidential candidate, Duterte barnstormed through the country’s capitals preaching the need to shift to federal government. This, he claimed, would end the hold of imperial Manila over the rest of the country, especially the lagging political prospects of Mindanao. He said his only goal was to convince Filipinos to go federal, but at end of the year, he admitted that he had fixed his eyes on the presidency. After he won, there was little done to clarify what he really had in mind. His different supporters, a mixed alliance of political cohorts, did not help either. But no one seemed to worry. He got elected, and it was not because he promised federalism. Many felt he presented an image of a president breaking ranks from the established political elite, studied and mannered for leadership. Those who believed he was “Tatay Digong” voted for him, because they identified with him, After election, the lack of clear action suggested the emptiness of the promise. A special group of elders presented Duterte with a draft for the charter change which would make this possible and described the system and the structure. But there was little effort to inform the people and help Filipinos understand what the change would mean for them.
IT IS no wonder that the shift to federalism has played out as a political fugue. Any talk of change in the system of government raises many questions. Federalism will address unequal development. But federalism requires charter change. Charter change strikes up an old debate. Can we change some provisions without changing the entire government system? Meanwhile, surveys showed that people really did not care about federalism and admitted not knowing much about what federalism will achieve for them. An SWS survey in March 2018 found that 75 percent of Filipino adults nationwide did not even know what federalism is and learned about the proposal to shift to it only during the survey. Oddly enough, the survey showed that 37 percent of respondents were in favor of a federal form of government; which may suggest that people do not necessarily understand the questions they are asked. Another survey by Pulse Asia released in May found that 66 percent of Filipinos were not in favor of federalism. Only 27 percent were in favor; 6 percent had no opinion. The coverage of the press did not try to sort out the contradictions, the misleading statements nor the resulting confusion, but reported each development as separate points, not trying to make sense of the confusion that had overtaken Duterte’s federalism project. Much of the media limited the discourse to only two opposing sides: the advocates, including the president and his allies; and the critics, particularly opposition lawmakers and some framers of the 1987 Constitution such as former Chief Justice Hilario Davide. The president’s consultative committee (concom) released its draft charter to the public in July 2018, a development which hogged the headlines and sparked debates. But there was little in the media to actually help the public appreciate the pros and cons of the proposed changes. The advocates of federalism argued that it would more efficiently serve the needs of a diverse country and solve the longstanding issues of poverty and marginalization in the provinces. Those against it pointed out that granting autonomy to local authorities would worsen the already corrupt system and strengthen the rule of the dynasties. The radical shift being proposed should have had most Filipinos talking about it. Unfortunately, the discourse could be likened to the individuals guessing the identity of the beast while holding its separate parts. The president certifying the draft charter to Congress on July 9 raised expectations for a lively discussion of its critical passages. But this did not happen. More talk seemed to reflect that Congress had already set their eyes on the holding of elections in 2018. Letting the charter sit in the congressional sidelines, media left its issues on the cold backburners of news.
Screengrab of the cover of the proposed Federal Constitution.
A QUICK TURN-ARROUND The volt-face in House of Representatives before the year ended took media by surprise. Media reported the railroading of Resolution of Both Houses No. 15 (RBH 15) as breaking news with little to indicate what had gone on in the past and how this related to the president’s agenda. Most media coverage did not provide the required context, failing to recall that House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had announced in August that Congress did not have enough time to discuss charter change; that it would not be able to pass the legislation with elections coming up in 2019. Four months later on December 11, the House passed Resolution of Both Houses 15, on its third and final reading, by a vote of 224 in favor, 22 against and three abstentions. Reports failed to present this as a quick change of heart primarily and did not probe the reasons for it, reporting these only as breaking news, developments which seemed disconnected were left unexplained in most reports.
HOUSE TRICKS Under the leadership of Speaker Arroyo which began in June 2018, the House has aggressively pursued charter change. With media’s casual reporting of legislative dealings, some reports missed a few underhanded moves that assured the resolution’s passage in the House, with eyes focused on the holding of elections in May 2019. In August 2018, Arroyo told the media that the House didn’t have enough time to discuss cha-cha. But in September, only a month later, Arroyo and 21 lawmakers filed a draft constitution with the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments. Clearly, Arroyo had not given up on the idea of pushing cha-cha in the current legislative agenda despite her public statements. But the media hardly noticed. The submission of “Resolution of Both Houses 15” was reported with procedural updates. While media highlighted some provisions, reports missed the significance of the removal of the vice president from the line of presidential succession in the draft until much later. Media also missed reporting that the House plenary debates had been cut short, precluding extensive discussion. Neither did they examine or investigate how the resolution passed second reading despite the lack of quorum.
Members of the House committee on constitutional amendments hold consultative meetings in various parts of the country to get the public pulse at the grassroots level on the proposed shift to a federal form of government via Cha-cha in 2017. | Photo from Cogress website.
HOUSE TRICKS Under the leadership of Speaker Arroyo which began in June 2018, the House has aggressively pursued charter change. With media’s casual reporting of legislative dealings, some reports missed a few underhanded moves that assured the resolution’s passage in the House, with eyes focused on the holding of elections in May 2019. In August 2018, Arroyo told the media that the House didn’t have enough time to discuss cha-cha. But in September, only a month later, Arroyo and 21 lawmakers filed a draft constitution with the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments. Clearly, Arroyo had not given up on the idea of pushing cha-cha in the current legislative agenda despite her public statements. But the media hardly noticed. The submission of “Resolution of Both Houses 15” was reported with procedural updates. While media highlighted some provisions, reports missed the significance of the removal of the vice president from the line of presidential succession in the draft until much later. Media also missed reporting that the House plenary debates had been cut short, precluding extensive discussion. Neither did they examine or investigate how the resolution passed second reading despite the lack of quorum. THE PEOPLE’S PLEBISCITE How the vote is achieved for the plebiscite is crucial. Lawmakers should be closely scrutinized and media should explain the role of politics in the entire process, especially because the upcoming midterm elections may alter the configuration of both houses. Some reference to history and background on politicians should help contextualize reports on current charter change discussions. Among the glaring gaps of coverage were the fiscal and economic costs of the shift, and the issues of transition. Most of the limited attempts at context in the reports came from talking heads. In August 2018, media reported the reservations of four cabinet members: Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno. Their reluctance to support federalism as proposed suggested that Duterte had failed to explain his endorsement of the draft, address the questions raised about it, and convince these officials of the merits of his proposed federalist constitution. There is a clear disconnect between the dangerous speed with which the proposed draft constitution was passed and the level of public awareness of the issues involved in the shift. A country’s laws must indeed reflect its changing socio-political environment. But the public discourse framed by the media has yet to open up to the necessary debate about whether federalism is the best way to do this. A shift to a federal government or any form of constitutional change should not be treated as ordinary news, framed simply as a debate among public officials and politicians. Media should be reporting such a profoundly radical proposal with the intent to have citizens understand what they will be voting on in a plebiscite, raise the crucial questions before they vote, argue the pros and cons — all with the end of understanding and appreciating how charter change, or federalism, will make a difference in their lives. Now that the lower house has passed the resolution, its fate awaits the Senate vote. But it may no longer be in the hands of the current members, but of the senators and representatives elected in May 2019. Congress will also have to settle the issues of joint or separate voting of the two chambers.