Over a cup of coffee
(Blogger’s Note: This appears today in my Panorama column.)
I like my coffee, three-in-one, warm, and toasty while I sit across my father, alive in my mind and heart, with his freshly brewed coffee filling the air with its aroma. He gazed around his old office and chuckled softly at the numerous ashtrays still in our office, awaiting his ashes to fall.
So letâ€™s begin, he said, knowing that the full import of what he would say had already been recorded in historyâ€™s notepad; which is why the conversation seemed doubly sad.
You authored the Peopleâ€™s Initiative provision when you were in the Constitutional Commission, I said. It was all I had to say to prep him, and thereafter my conversation with my father began.
BFO: Yes, I did. In the Constitutional Commission of 1986, I introduced a resolution recognizing the right of the people to revolt and overthrow a tyrannical government. This legal innovation inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, however, found little support although an overwhelming majority of my colleagues figured in the EDSA Revolution. This idea soon evolved into a more acceptable alternative. I introduced another resolution, which built into the Constitution the peopleâ€™s reserve power to amend the basic law outside the framework of Congress when they become so disillusioned that they could no longer trust their elected officials to represent faithfully their interests. It is a sword in the scabbard for the people to use as they see fit in the future, which can be exercised however only once every five years to deter the merely frivolous and to protect constitutional stability.
The resolution this time commanded unanimous support. Father Joaquin Bernas, then president of Ateneo de Manila University, sponsored the amendment provisions on the floor together with Commissioner Jose â€œSensingâ€ Suarez, chairman of the committee on constitutional amendments. The ConCom never intended that a ruling set of leaders should cause a peopleâ€™s initiative to keep them in power.
Me: Can a peopleâ€™s initiative be used to change the form and structure of government?
BFO: Article XVII of the Constitution, entitled â€œAmendments or Revisions,â€ speaks of the first two modes, by constituent assembly and by the calling of a national constitutional convention, in Section 1. The third mode of initiative and referendum appears separately in Section 2 and is explicit that it may cover only specific amendments, not a revision of the Constitution. Obviously, a major revision of the Constitution, by changing the structure of government, may require a constituent assembly or a constitutional convention.
Me: I know I donâ€™t even have to ask you this, but for the sake of our readers, are the countryâ€™s problems really caused by this Constitution? Why do our leaders continue to blame this document as the biggest obstacle to national progress?
BFO: Clearly, one advantage of this approach is that the nationâ€™s chronic failures, from the power brownouts to the breakdowns in peace and order, to the stagnation of the economy, can be charged to a system, not to our elected leaders.
For example, I do not see the logic of blaming a presidential system of government for the failure to settle the power crisis, for example. Every one knew that after the Bataan nuclear plant had to be mothballed, something should have been done to replace the output of 620 megawatts withdrawn from the Luzon grid. It was that simple. And yet not only the President, but the Congress at that time, failed to provide.
Me: The administration party in Congress headed by your good friend, Speaker Jose de Venecia, is stridently pushing for a Con-Ass. Given the current times, is this a more acceptable mode?
BFO: I donâ€™t think so, and let me explain why. Once Congress transforms itself into a constituent assembly, under the Constitution, it becomes a supreme organ empowered to propose any constitutional change. It will frame its own agenda. This can mean a huge Pandoraâ€™s box. It can reopen the historic wounds of conflict between Filipinos. This Constitution has a strong commitment against political dynasties, against an unjust land tenure system and against conflicts of interests involving public officers and members of Congress themselves. It has declared Filipino as the national language. It has bolstered human rights. There will be attempts to water down these provisions.
Me: So it is right for citizens to demand for a more transparent and participative process for constitutional reforms?
BFO: Certainly, because we must draw lessons from history. In 1940 President Manuel Luis Quezon successfully maneuvered to extend his term through a constitutional amendment and in 1971 to 1973, President Marcos contrived to have the national constitutional convention effect a shift from the presidential to the parliamentary system, to permit him to stay in power as Prime Minister. These episodes in our history, each occurring within fifty years of the other, are too recent to be forgotten.
Over a cup of coffee, we went on to discuss other matters before he finally had to go. Stay connected, though we are worlds apart, I asked quietly in my heart, of him who taught me that constitutional stability and integrity must be preserved at all times.
Writerâ€™s Note: BFOâ€™s answers are based on his previous columns and speeches, several of which appeared in this publication.