It is a healthy sign of democracy that the proposed shift to federalism for our government is facing fundamental questions as to how being a nation of federal states will affect our national life.
Is federalism an urgent need for our country? It is, if you are not from Metro Manila or Central Luzon or Calabarzon – the areas benefiting from our current unitarism, or the very same government structure imposed by our colonizers over five centuries ago. Who wants to let go of a good thing?
But even if you are residing in one of the remote towns or provinces in, say, Central Luzon, such as Zambales and Aurora, you will immediately see the problems with unitarism and the advantages of a genuine, constitutionally mandated sharing of power between the regions and the national capital under a proposed federal government.
So why is it urgent? One good reason is simply the massive waste of government spending on programs and projects that result from “national formulation” and cookie-cutter patterns that can give you irrigation canals in fully urbanized cities and bridges leading to nowhere. This wastage occurs year in and year out. I regularly tour the countryside on a motorcycle and seeing large, failed government projects, regarded as white elephants, is a regular sight. Even when projects have hit their mark, they may still be rendered useless in a few years in the absence of local “ownership” that could provide regular maintenance.
Local planning and authority over budgets will result logically in better-suited projects, easier monitoring, easier adjustments, to make them succeed and inspire greater accountability between the taxer and the taxed. This is just common sense and the check and balances between different regional branches of government may be based on local context for optimum effect.
Now, this very visible waste is a real energy sapper and asks one and all in the peripheries a valid question: “What’s the point of paying the right tax if it just goes to waste?” The visible waste, meantime, is a magnet for the politically astute contractor or businessman to curry favor with local politicians who are well connected with the national politicians. This creates a fertile ground for the so-called balimbing phenomenon that now completes the cycle of a new administration’s patronage system. Naturally, since we are still a unitary country, the 17th Congress under PRRD is exactly the same as the KBL, LAKAS, PMP, LIBERAL PARTY-dominated Congress during their time, and now it’s simply PDP-LABAN’s turn.
But President Duterte is a realist and sees the urgent need (within three years of his administration) for a shift to federalism to reduce massively if not totally remove the scourge of patronage-based, dysfunctional, budgets that breed the Napoles type of financial acrobatics, which in the recent past left our countrymen disillusioned and wary of government.
The line from patronage politics to political dynasties is a straight and short one, and clearly the Liberal Party in its last days attempted to consolidate the dynasties in exchange for political support for its standard bearer. They even crowed about the fact they were able to engineer to victory tens of electoral contests in 2016 where their candidates had no rivals (now that can be considered a betrayal of the ideals of democracy).
Thus, the inherent tendency of a unitary government Philippine-style is to breed corruption between branches of government and even within the branches of government, given the highly centralized budget and spending control of the national government, accounting for more than 80% of the total taxes generated in a given year.
So, is the need to reduce and remove dysfunctional patronage and dynasties urgent? Is the need to reduce poverty and mal-development urgent? Maybe. But if you are a greedy oligarch or one who benefits from the current system, then it is not urgent.
Another legitimate question often asked is, “Can the Philippines evolve into a federal structure? To that, my answer would be, “Why not?” Who says there can be only one path toward federalism, as in, it can only come from an organic process of formerly independent states agreeing to come together through a federal system? And if the Philippines were to become one of the countries to choose this leap in a manner it so democratically chooses, who is to say that this will result in problems worse than those in our current state? In fact, it is hard to imagine anything worse than our poverty-generating, corruption-riddled unitary structure. That may change the face of the next President and use different letters to spell the next Party in power through another cycle of elections, but it will be the same old dog unleashed by the colonizers and perpetuated by local greedy oligarchs to this day; hopefully, not much longer.
And as to “how to get there,” the obvious answer would be, since we are a democracy, and the process involves a major change, it is best to do it in a manner that allows maximum discussion of the matter among well-represented groups.
A Con-ass may save money but surely one cannot expect real change from the very people placed there by the body that needs to be changed. So what if a Con-con is more expensive compared with a Con-ass? And how can you put value to a democratically elected body of people who have no conflict of interest with the status quo or even the needed change in coming up with a new structure of government? I would say, draft rules on the election of delegates, and if you want to save money, time the polls with the barangay elections.
THE AUTHOR, Philip Camara, is a co-convenor of Subsidiarity Movement International, as well as the Federalist Forum of the Philippines. As such, he advocates a bottom-up development model, proper decentralization; as well as the strengthening of regional governance. He served for 12 years in the Regional Development Council of Central Luzon as chair of the Economic Committee. He was a consultant at Philippine Alternative Fuels Corp (PAFC) and was on the Board of Trustees of the HARIBON Foundation. He is currently a member of the Board of Advisors of CDPI.