By Getsy Tiglao
The unparliamentary brawl in the Senate between Senators Richard Gordon and Antonio Trillanes, only the latest in the endless drama being witnessed in the upper house, gives the people another reason to root for a shift to a parliamentary system with a single legislative body.
Gordon and Trillanes were fighting over whether or not to call the President’s son and son-in-law to the Blue Ribbon Committee hearing. Heated words were exchanged, threats of expulsion made, and taxpayers’ money was wasted. It’s absurd really. But this is the Philippine Senate, where everyone is auditioning to be the next president.
Meanwhile, the Philippines is struggling to play catch-up with its Asian neighbors who have all been enjoying the fruits of economic development and the stability that comes with their parliamentary form of government. We’re the only ones stuck in a colonial time warp, struggling with a flawed presidential system foisted on us by foreign subjugators.
Previous leaders of the country had tried to change to a parliamentary system, beginning with Marcos and then Ramos and Arroyo. But Filipinos weren’t ready then and mistrusted their leaders. It is only now under the immensely popular Duterte administration that the shift is finally happening.
If it were up to the Senate, there will be no major reforms that will be undertaken which will take time away from their favorite occupation, the committee hearings in aid of legislation. But why is it that we never hear of the important laws that are supposed to have been inspired by these hearings? All we are left with are the bitter taste of the bullying of witnesses and the senatorial infighting.
The Lower House, on the other hand, has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts with its newfound vigor and purpose. They don’t enjoy the same media attention bestowed on the senators but they are a hardworking lot led by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez who, in his no-nonsense manner, is quietly pushing through with President Rodrigo Duterte’s major reform initiatives.
After passing the difficult comprehensive tax reform program (still pending in the Senate), the House and its technical group are now working on the initial draft of the new federal-parliamentary constitution, in preparation for discussions next year in the joint Constituent Assembly. I had discussed in last week’s column the merits of federalism, which will see the creation of 11 Philippine federal states.
A parliamentary system typically has only one legislative house. This means a faster, more efficient process of creating legislation. Our current system is too slow and ponderous. Debates in one house for a law is repeated in the other house. We will save a lot of money if one of these houses is eliminated.
The Philippine parliament as envisioned will be headed by a Prime Minister who will be chosen by his or her peers in the chamber. This means no extra elections that will use public funds. Also, if the people are unhappy with the Prime Minister, their representatives in parliament could easily remove the official through an in-house no-confidence vote.
Under the presidential system, the two houses of Congress are part and parcel of the idea of a “check and balance” in government. But in today’s polarized world, with politics often taking precedence over national interest, finding the balance is almost impossible. Even in a mature political environment such as the United States, major laws take time to pass, if at all, with partisanship mucking up reforms.
The growing consensus in the Duterte administration is to transition into a hybrid parliamentary system with a President who is head of state and the Prime Minister as head of government. Part of the plan is to give additional responsibilities to the President who will take charge of foreign affairs and national defense, as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The members of Cabinet will come from the ranks of Congress, an easy fusion of the executive and legislative. This should lead to a better understanding of what laws are really needed by the people as the legislators-department heads are exposed to the real world. The President, our equivalent of a working monarch, will still be chosen via general election.
A proposal gaining traction is the elimination of the post of vice president which has been deemed useless and redundant. The new line of succession will see the head of the unicameral body as a temporary president, in case of death or resignation, until a new election for a president can be called.
This brings us to the crucial question – should the Philippine version of a Parliament retain both the Senate and the House of Representatives? Some parliamentary countries do support two chambers. This is the initial idea because the lawmakers are not expected to support any change in the constitution if they are not allowed to retain their current positions.
But this is utterly selfish, and the lawmakers should think of their country first. A unicameral parliament is the best for the Philippines. We need a more stable form of government since the one we have is an easy target for obstructionists and destabilizers. The people are tired of the partisan politics and constant drama. It’s time for the lawmakers to stop these and do some real work for a change.