Today’s column: Learning more about charter change

  Last week, I sat in an auditorium filled with Ateneo law students who were there to hear three respected figures speak about the administration’s efforts to change the Constitution. The students expected a meaningful discussion and the distinguished panel of resource persons did not disappoint them. 

  Father Joaquin Bernas SJ was a delight to listen to because of his wit and clear explanation of the legal issues surrounding the controversial People’s Initiative. Former Constitutional Commission member Christian Monsod added his own pragmatic analysis of unfolding events with frequent references to the Commission on Elections, which he once chaired. The third resource person was former Congressman and Education Secretary Butch Abad now with the Black & White Movement who informed the student body about how signatures were gathered in his home province of Batanes. 

  Constitutional expert Father Bernas delivered a PowerPoint Presentation on the modes of Charter change, the difference between an amendment and a revision, and why he believes the People’s Initiative now underway is flawed. The last few slides of his presentation dealt with the proposals being advanced by administration allies on what the new Constitution should look like. I heard some students gasp upon learning that the House draft amendments include allowing martial rule without the current safeguards and the return of foreign troops. 

  Fr. Bernas said the present Constitution clearly specifies that an amendment is different from a revision. He also explained the background behind the approval of the People’s Initiative. This reserve power granted to the people was limited to Constitutional amendments because it would have been more cumbersome for people to get together, agree and decide on which articles of the Constitution should be revised. An amendment, he jested, can be about making the height of a President not exceed five feet tall, while a revision entails a great deal more changes such as when proposed that we shift from a Republican government to a monarchy. Something that Father Bernas himself would back, he quipped, as long as he was appointed the first King. 

  Panel reactor Christian Monsod discussed the dilemma of Comelec election registrars who are under pressure from various forces to verify the signatures gathered by Sigaw ng Bayan. He also eschewed the use of extra-Constitutional means to effect political reforms including the change of leadership. He said the people have an option to choose congressmen and senators in the 2007 polls based on whether they are prepared to impeach the President or not. However, if this criterion is not relevant to most people than an opposite outcome must also be respected. 

  Black & White movement convenor Butch Abad shared with the Ateneo student body how signatures were gathered in Batanes under the supervision of no less than the municipal officer of the Department of Interior and Local Governments. He also expressed concern that more civil servants and private citizens will disengage from the political class because of the Charter change experience. He lamented that otherwise professional government employees are being forced by their superiors to undertake what clearly is a highly questionable political exercise. 

  During the question and answer portion of the conference, quite a few students wanted to know what must be done to derail the Charter change express. Many participants opted to stay behind just to discuss how they can contribute to the snowballing effort to prevent the hasty yet well-organized effort to bring about a new Constitution before the traditional State of the Nation Address of the President in mid-July. 

  I was quite heartened by the intelligent and sober discussions between the panelists and students. I wished that ordinary Filipinos, particularly those who live in far-flung areas, were there to receive the same kind of illuminating answers from persons of authority who have no selfish agenda to pursue. Alas, it takes money for such seminars to take place especially outside Metro Manila. The Sigaw ng Bayan movement appears to be well funded in this regard, with their Charter Change caravans traveling the length and breadth of our archipelago, despite a looming oil crisis. 

  I have heard several public officials aligned with the administration call for public debates on the issue of charter change. Rather than merely issuing press releases about this, I call on the administration to sponsor such public debates in all barangays with both sides fairly represented in an honest discussion about the context, manner, and substance of the current People’s Initiative. This, too, was the position taken by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, based on their most recent statement. 

  The Constitution belongs to all Filipinos. It is government’s role to see to it that the people are properly informed about any move to amend or revise any or all of its articles. General statements meant to promote Charter change as the magic wand that will wipe out all our political, economic, and social problems denigrate the intelligence of all Filipinos. 

  

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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