Doing it right

One can be certain that almost every Filipino today desires change in the way the nation is run.  What form that change should take is, however, the subject of much debate. Some believe that if only we can have better leaders, there may be no need to change the system. Others think the quality of our leaders is itself a result of the defective system we have.

I think that if Filipinos were asked today to choose between changing the Constitution and changing Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the great majority would junk Ms Arroyo and keep the Constitution.  This does not mean that the people are satisfied with the 1987 Constitution. Indeed, many may think that an entirely new constitution is the cureall for the nation’s problems.  But serious advocates of the rewriting of the Constitution know that a basic requirement for doing it right is the insulation of the process from the narrow objectives of partisan politics. Right now, it is such objectives that are driving the Charter Express.

It is obvious what these are.  The first is to abolish the Senate, the only branch of government that has dared to investigate criminal charges against Ms Arroyo with persistence and independence.  It is this Senate that will automatically constitute itself as an impeachment court the moment an impeachment complaint obtains a one-third vote in the House of Representatives.  The second is to lay to rest, once and for all, the legitimacy questions that have hounded Ms Arroyo’s presidency since 2001, and all the criminal charges arising from the fraudulent conduct of the 2004 election.

Clearly, Charter change, by hook or by crook, is Ms Arroyo’s last card in her bid to survive till 2010 and avoid prosecution and imprisonment at the end of her term.  This is the institutional route she offers as a way of resolving all challenges to her rule. Given the weakness of her hand, this bid is truly astounding in its brazenness.  It concedes nothing, not even a shortening of her term as president.  Yet it rests on nothing more than the notorious ability of her political operators to produce outcomes by preying upon the poverty, the indifference, and ignorance of the masses.

By its constitution, a nation declares itself as a legal and political community.  The constitution expresses our self-understanding — who we are, and how we have been shaped by our customs and beliefs, and by our past.  It situates the nation in the modern world, and embodies its understanding of the various external forces that shape and constrain the nation’s life.  And finally, the constitution lays down the system of power deemed appropriate to the nation’s goals, the institutional arrangements by which the state governs, and a statement of the people’s basic rights.

Rewriting a constitution need not be a hit-and-miss affair.  There’s a way of doing it that minimizes the perils of blind experimentation or utopian thinking, and points the way to a living and usable Charter. We might learn a thing or two from New Zealand’s experience.

Although it has operated for the most part without a written constitution, New Zealand has, since 1980, tinkered with its basic conventions and parliamentary acts.  In April 2000, the Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank in the Victoria University of Wellington, convened a path-breaking conference on “Building the Constitution.” The conference aimed to take stock of what the country has learned from its previous efforts to craft a living constitution.

The organizers commissioned brief papers (not more than 4 pages) covering a wide range of topics.  A quick glance at the themes taken up gives us an idea of the conceptual map that guided the conference.

There were 10 sessions: (1) “What constitutes our nation” discussed the cultural and historical realities that have shaped the national consciousness; (2) “The constraints of treaties and international law” dealt with aspects of international law, and the constraints posed by a globalized economy; (3) “What constitutes the constitution” looked at the political origins and legal  framework of the existing constitution; (4) “The treaty of Waitangi and the constitution” dealt with the basis of the nation’s sovereignty and Maori rights; (5) “Multiculturalism and the constitution” tackled issues of cultural diversity and national integration; (6) “Who should be head of state” examined the implications of declaring a republic or staying with the Crown; (7) “The Cabinet, public service, and sub-national government” tackled the relationship between Cabinet and the Parliament, the civil service, and the role of local governments and community organizations; (8) “Should parliament be changed” examined the various options pertaining to representation; (9) “What role for the judges” reviewed the proper scope of judicial authority; and (10) “A written constitution?” discussed the pros and cons of shifting from the Westminster tradition to a republican form with an embedded bill of rights.

I do not mean for this list to serve as a model for the Philippines, for indeed it reflects the specific priorities and concerns of today’s New Zealanders.  We should have our own list expressing the problems and dilemmas we have encountered in the course of our nation’s life.

You put such an imaginary list side by side the stupid omnibus question that serves as the basis for the signature campaign of the so-called “people’s initiative”, and you get an idea of the contempt with which the Arroyo regime regards our people.

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