Charting the country’s course

In Photo: President Duterte greets Consultative Committee member Aquilino Pimentel Jr. on the sidelines of the oath-taking ceremony of newly appointed officials at Malacañang on February 13, 2018.

AS the saying goes, progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

More than three decades since the country last changed its Constitution, the Duterte administration is now attempting to usher in a shift from unitary to federal form of government in a bid to spread economic growth across all regions and not just in the so-called Imperial Manila.

No matter how uncomfortable it is to go against the tide, the 22 members of the Consultative Committee (Con-com) handpicked by the President were one in pushing for the major change in the country’s form of government, which they believe will set the country free from decades of political and economic shackles—entrenched systems and practices that lie at the root of most problems.

Coming up with a proposed federal constitution in less than six months was surely no easy feat.

Yet the Con-com members accepted the challenging task, seeing this as a big window of opportunity toward the realization of their dreams for the country and for the Filipinos.

Con-com member and business executive Arthur N. Aguilar

It bears noting that among the key people tasked to shape a new federal charter—and help guide the nation to the future, as it were—were distinguished figures from the past. At the helm of the committee composed of esteemed individuals from different intellectual disciplines was retired Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno.

Puno told the BusinessMirror that it was a great challenge crafting the Constitution but thanks to the good mix of individuals chosen by the President to be included in the committee, he had no doubt that the committee will be able to accomplish the tall order from the President—to finish the draft charter by July.

“Well, the members of the committee turned out to be professional in their attitude and in the manner they discharge their obligations and to me, the mix of the members of the committee is quite a good mix. I came to know they came from different intellectual disciplines,” Puno told the BusinessMirror.

“Some are political scientists. Some were experts in governance. Some were former members of the House, and of course, we have the former Senate President there, [and former] Senator Aquilino Pimentel. And the military was represented and we have a lady representative and former justices of the Supreme Court and representatives from both the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), so that’s quite a good mixture so we came to discuss the different issues that confronted us from various intellectual perspectives,” the former chief magistrate said.

Besides being well-qualified, the members of the committee, in Puno’s view, were all passionate and hardworking in drafting the Constitution. All of them worked all day until early evening, even bringing homework and going through so much material to read; and writing during weekends or even during holidays.

Consultative Committee Chairman and former Chief Justice Reynato Puno (right), former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. and former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. attend a Senate committee hearing on the proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution on July 17, 2018. Alysa Salen

But, he also pointed out, the Con-com also took advantage of the expertise of other people who helped them craft the draft federal constitution.

The hard part of drafting the Constitution by the committee is already done, but there is still a long and harder way to go as the committee is busy attending conferences and going to almost all parts of the country to promote the notion of federalism, and persuade the people to support the proposed draft federal charter, since it is expected that a plebiscite will happen after Congress goes into a Constituent Assembly.

If the committee can persuade Congress and the people to approve and ratify their proposed draft federal constitution, Puno said, people from all regions can expect an economic improvement of their lives, especially those who live in far-flung areas, noting that it is beyond debate that the cause of widespread poverty is the overconcentration of powers in the national government under a unitary setup.

“Because of this overconcentration of powers, our regions are not given their proper resources in order to develop themselves and [with] this overconcentration of powers, our regions are also not given the political autonomy to govern themselves,” Puno said. “So with these shackles, the regions, almost all of them except three, are very poor, and that translates to widespread poverty of our people. In other words, if we are able to unlock the economic potentials of these regions and we are able to give them the power to govern themselves I like to think that our people could look for a better future.”

Of course, as any change will be met with some form of resistance, federalism is not an exception.

Amend Local Government Code?

One argument against federalism is that the government can just amend the Local Government Code (LGC) instead of going all the way to change the charter.

But no less than the father of the LGC, Con-com member and former Senate President Pimentel Jr. agreed to change the charter, saying that this is the only way to bring substantial change to the country.

“You see, the problem when you amend the Local Government Code is that they [Congress] can re-update. In other words, what they do, they can undo. But if you make it into a constitutional provision, they will have a hard time because it is the people who will have the last say on what they really want,” Pimentel told the BusinessMirror.

At the same time, he gave assurances that the powers of local government units will not be reduced under their proposed charter since they have included a clear provision that it is the obligation of federated regions to ensure the protection of local government units.

Asked why he accepted this task at his age (84), Pimentel said it is because he has many things to share with the people.

He is also hoping that one day the people will be liberated from living under the poverty line and will enjoy the fruits of freedom.

“I want a situation wherein Filipinos no longer need to go abroad to look for work,” Pimentel said.

Better prospects–Aguilar

Con-com member and business executive Arthur N. Aguilar added that although prosperity is not guaranteed under federalism shift, the country will have better prospects for economic growth.

Aside from this, there will also be better response to things like agriculture.

“We will be able to respond to our problems effectively and faster,” he said.

Asked why he is pushing for federalism, Aguilar said: “It’s a lifelong vision and advocacy. It’s the only way to run this country.”

He thinks it is inevitable that the Philippines will federalize because the country’s growing population will make it hard for one group of people to decide for everybody.

“Federalism, I think, is an idea that you can only delay and you can frustrate but you cannot kill,” Aguilar said.

But Puno said it is timely that the country shifted to federalism now because it is a move to address poverty, which has been the country’s “bedfellow” not just for a few years or for a few decades, but for centuries.

“If you cannot check the spiraling of poverty, you will have a peace and order problem in your hands,” he added.

Pushing for federalism is also his “last crusade for the people,” Puno said.

“Although I am already retired, I see what is good for my country, so that is why I am working for this. It’s not for my own interest, because as I said, I am already 78, I am already retired. I am doing this for the people.”

Asked what kind of legacy he wants the Con-com to leave to future Filipinos, Puno said: “The improvement of their lives. I think that is the lasting legacy that our people deserve.”

Image credits: King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo, Alysa Salen

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