Ship of fools

President Duterte receives proposed federal constitution of Consultative Committee
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Were they fools duped into boarding the “federalist ship,” and drafting and defending a constitution that would supposedly bring into fruition President Rodrigo Duterte’s oft-repeated claim that a shift to a federal form of government would accelerate the development of the country’s poorest regions? At least one member of the Duterte-appointed Consultative Committee (Con-Com), who helped write the draft that’s now in Congress, is beginning to think so.

He might have been inspired by President Duterte’s firing of various officials, particularly his dismissing the entire board and executive staff of the Nayong Pilipino Foundation last week. It might not have occurred to him — or he might have forgotten — that Mr. Duterte has a tendency to re-appoint officials to other, even higher posts after firing them.

In any event, on the argument that free expression isn’t among the rights of Cabinet secretaries, Con-Com member and law dean Fr. Ranhilio Aquino last week urged either the sacking of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director-General Ernesto Pernia, or their being told to “keep their traps shut.”

NEDA’s Pernia had earlier told the Senate finance committee hearing that the shift to a federal form of government would cost the humongous amount of P150 billion, and is likely to disrupt economic growth.

Speaking before the same committee, Dominguez said he was “very confused” with the fiscal provisions of the constitution drafted by the Con-Com to effect the shift to a federal government from the present unitary form.

Because the draft says the 18 regions or states that will be created will have a 50 percent share of the federal government’s revenue collections, the latter could end up with a “very large” deficit, Dominguez said.

What’s more, he continued, once the government incurs that “large deficit,” its credit rating “will go to hell,” and it will have to pay lenders higher interest rates. The international finance agencies, he said, have already described the shift to federalism as “a political risk” and “an uncertainty.”

Fr. Aquino should have included in his Facebook post demanding the heads of Pernia and Dominguez Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who recently told interviewers that the Philippines “is not yet ready” for federalism and that most Filipinos find it “confusing.”

Lorenzana was only echoing the findings of the public opinion polls that some 75 percent of Filipinos don’t know what a federal form of government is, let alone what it would mean to governance and development, and that 65 to 70 percent of the population are opposed to amending or changing the Constitution.

Some observers have concluded that all three members of the Cabinet are against Mr. Duterte’s federalism proposal, and Fr. Aquino apparently thinks so as well. But that’s not exactly true. Only Pernia didn’t qualify his statements at the Senate hearing. In contrast, Dominguez made it clear he was only against the present Con-Com draft because of its “confusing” provisions, while Lorenzana said that despite his criticism, his department would (of course) abide by whatever Congress, acting as a constituent assembly, decides — by which he presumably meant whether it approves, rejects, or amends the draft and submits it to the people for ratification.

But Fr. Aquino is not easily appeased. He expressed doubts about Mr. Duterte’s own commitment to the shift to a federal form of government — and who can blame him for arriving at that conclusion? Pernia and Dominguez are presumably among the most influential members of the Cabinet, being involved in the management, direction and focus of the economy, while Lorenzana is tasked with the country’s defense and security, and vital to the regime’s political stability.

Surely they have Mr. Duterte’s ear and confidence, and would therefore not have expressed their criticism of the Con-Com draft without his clearance — or at least with some certainty that their views matter. Is Mr. Duterte then just waiting for an opportune time to announce his withdrawal of support for the federalist option?

In his frustration, Fr. Aquino urged Mr. Duterte to “give the order to abandon the federalist ship” if he’s “now cool to federalism,” so “all of us fools who wrote the draft and defended it with all our might will know that we have been taken for a ride.”

It’s a little late in the day for Fr. Aquino to do anything about his and his fellow federalism enthusiasts’ being deceived. Like these seemingly well-meaning folk, other people did buy into the federalist folly on the mistaken assumption that Mr. Duterte had a grand plan in mind that would address poverty and its attendant ills when, during the 2016 campaign for the presidency, he promised the shift to federalism once he’s elected.

But like every other self-aggrandizing politician, what’s more likely is that he was merely using it as a ploy to assure himself of the votes of the millions of Filipinos desperate for change, and to win the support of his fellow local despots who have the command votes crucial to winning a national post in this country of contradictions.

Every national election in these parts is local. Vital to the outcome of any election is the support of the dynasties based in the provinces and regions that decide who their constituents will vote into office, whether it’s for mayor or governor, or for the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the presidency of this rumored democracy.

In that irrefutable and sorry context lies the local lure of federalism. It is by far the best means of further assuring and strengthening the power of the provincial and regional dynasties. Once in command of the states the shift will create, those handful of families will raise their own taxes, pass their own laws, and decide how, for what, for whom and when revenues including the states’ share of federal funds will be spent.

In addition to further empowering the warlords, local tyrants and the rural political elite that already have a monopoly over political power, their command over their expanded fiefdoms will also enable them to line their pockets without any independent Commission on Audit or equivalent agency to check it.

The further decay of democratic rule accountable to the people, and an even worse surge in public sector corruption, will be among its inevitable consequences. In that sense is the federalist ship that quite a number of people have been lured into boarding — together with the corrupt, the power-mad, and such insatiable masters of greed and mendacity as former presidents — a ship of fools.

To understand how frivolously the regime regards federalism, one only has to note and keep in mind Mr. Duterte’s own reaction to that insufferably vulgar video produced by one of his favorite hucksters.

Instead of echoing the outrage of even many of his own party-mates and allies, Mr. Duterte, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said, was “cool” towards it, but not in the sense of “no longer interested” that Fr. Aquino used the word in his Facebook post, but in the sense of “calm” or “serene.”

Both Mr. Duterte’s reaction to that tasteless mockery, as well as its ignoble culprits’ attempts to justify it, spoke volumes on how recklessly and without much thought has the federalism option — and changing the Constitution in the process — been made part of the regime’s constantly changing, contradictory, and mindless agenda.

Ship of Fools is the title of a novel by the American fictionist Katherine Anne Porter.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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