It seems I started a bit of a firestorm with a recent article among the advocates of constitutional reform, whom I did not actually identify as the CoRRECT movement — because to be quite honest, I’m not at all certain they are necessarily the only reform advocates in the country — but who were quick to acknowledge themselves as the “victims” of my “attack.” Among the many, many online and offline comments I received was a suggestion that “I reflect on my errors.”
I can’t help but reflect; I’m bald, so I reflect all the time, unless I’m wearing a hat. And upon reflection, I’ve realized an interesting thing about my “errors”:
I didn’t make any.
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I made three basic points in my article: First, that the reform movement suffers from a lack of clear goals and organization; Second, that the prescribed solutions are presented as self-evident drivers of progress; and Third, that the informal, populist approach taken to promoting the need for reforms is impractical and unrealistic. Nothing I have heard in the responses to the article has revealed that I have fundamentally misunderstood the advocacy or their message, or that my perceptions of its flaws are inaccurate.
There is a much deeper issue than whether or not constitutional reform is right or wrong. That, in fact, is not even a matter for debate — the 1987 Constitution is a piece of junk, and must be changed. The what and why of the advocacy are not the problem; it’s the how and the what next that are getting short shrift.
All reforming the Constitution accomplishes is to presumably establish a better environment in which the country can develop and progress; the reforms do not confer development and progress on the country by themselves. Non-constitutional reforms should be identified and given attention now while the constitutional reform initiatives are being pursued, because the end of protectionism does not necessarily attract foreign investment if the investment environment is otherwise uncompetitive, as the OECD points out:
“Market opening needs to be accompanied by sound macroeconomic settings, flexible labour markets and institution building to allow labour and capital to move from declining to expanding areas of activity, and by social safety nets, improved education and training and the strengthening of property rights in order to address the underlying causes of poverty.” [Emphasis added]
Parliamentary systems may on the whole function more efficiently than Presidential systems, but no system is immune to corruption, inefficiency, or instability. The difference between a Parliamentary system and the current Presidential system is like the difference between an F-18 and a pedicab; one is obviously a superior mode of transportation to the other, but try putting a pedicab driver in the cockpit of an F-18 without the proper training and preparation and you’ll soon be picking through his blackened wreckage, assuming he can even get the thing off the ground in the first place. Federal systems likewise can more efficiently spread population, productivity, and governance throughout the country, but they can also create or aggravate existing inequalities. There is, for example, a difference of around $35,000 in the median household income of the highest- (Maryland) and lowest- (Mississippi) ranked states in the US.
Constitutional reform is merely a tool, and like any other tool it can be used properly or misused. Achieving constitutional reform is a beginning, not an end. The leaders of the reform movement would say that the scope of their mission is changing the Constitution, because that in itself is a big job which has so far proven impossible in the twenty-odd years since President Aquino 1.0 foisted the current Constitution off on the country.
That is hardly good enough.
Reforming the Constitution and changing the entire shape of the Philippine body politic is not merely a one-off initiative like supporting a piece of legislation such as the RH Bill, or backing a particular candidate for office. It assumes the mantle of national leadership; the leaders of the reform advocacy may not necessarily find themselves in Parliament or the Prime Minister’s office, but if they are successful they will have changed the country as much or more than any elected leader ever could. Having provided the tool — a tool which, quite significantly, no one here will have ever seen before — the reform advocacy has an obligation to tell people how to use it. The scope of the project, whether they like or not, goes far beyond simply changing the Constitution. What will be done to attract investment? How will the Parliament be organized? How will the country be divided into Federal states?
Of course, those questions may be rendered moot if the initiative fails, which is a possibility. One of the basic operating beliefs of the reform advocates is that priority should be placed on gaining public support for constitutional reform, the rationale being that any changes that are made will ultimately need to be ratified by the people. But the plebiscite is the last step in the process. If public support was the potent influence it is imagined to be, why, for example, is the RH Bill still sitting on someone’s desk in the Legislature? Why, for example, did Gloria Arroyo avoid getting run out of office on a rail in 2005? Why, for example, has a Divorce Bill not gotten passed?
The Philippine voters are not the droids you’re looking for, folks. It is an understandable offense to peoples’ idealism, but it is what it is: There are powerful influences that make things happen — or not — in this country, and they are where your energies should be directed.
As I said in the conclusion to my earlier article, to outsiders like me the failure to accomplish the reforms that are so obviously needed in this country, constitutional or otherwise, will represent a regrettable lost opportunity. For the people of this country, though, I don’t think it is necessarily hyperbole to assert that lives — or at least livelihoods — are very much at stake. To be fair to the reform advocates, I know they realize that; what they need to do now is start acting like it.