COMMENTARY: Federalism, diversity and national integration

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MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/28 October) — When Spanish forces landed here eons ago they had initially observed that the indigenous people of these islands were of one ethnic stock.

Later on however, they would realize that despite the apparent homogeneity in the population, the native inhabitants were actually divided into sub-ethnic groups with each having their own dialect, traditions and rituals.

Interestingly, such diversity still exists in the Philippines today. Indigenous identities still run deep amongst us despite other peoples’ view that Filipinos have become too Hispanized, Americanized, or Westernized.

The reality is centuries of colonization, the onslaught of globalization and even the internet have all failed to homogenize Filipino identity. And I do not expect such a development to happen anytime soon, if at all.

But this should not be seen as a bad thing. As cliché as it sounds, the fact that Filipinos form a nation of diverse peoples is something to celebrate. There is definitely still an untapped economic growth potential here.

More importantly, I believe most Filipinos today would assert that the recognition of indigeneity should never ever equate to the fragmentation of the Philippine polity along ethnic or religious divides. National unity and regional diversity are not mutually exclusive realities. Indeed, all of us are equally responsible over matters affecting the nation regardless of aboriginality we claim to have.

Accordingly, in light of the Duterte administration’s push to shift to a federal form of government, the United Nations Human Development report for 2004 entitled Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World has become very relevant to us now, specifically:

“The solution could be to create institutions and polices that allow for both self-rule that creates a sense of belonging and a pride in one’s ethnic group and for shared rule that creates attachment to a set of common institutions and symbols. An alternative to the nation state, then, is the “state nation”, where various “nations” — be they ethnic, religious, linguistic or indigenous identities—can coexist peacefully and cooperatively in a single state polity.”

Without a doubt national sovereignty is an unavoidable conditionality faced by diverse communities within a nation-state. But the pursuit of national integration does not justify the suppression of the peoples’ indigenous sense of belonging and pride. Further words from the UN in this regard is illuminating:

“National cohesion does not require the imposition of a single identity and the denunciation of diversity. Successful strategies to build “state-nations” can and do accommodate diversity constructively by crafting responsive policies of cultural recognition. They are effective solutions for ensuring the longer terms objectives of political stability and social harmony.”

Hence, it is absolutely imperative to embed mechanisms within the federal structure that foster cooperation and collaboration among the subnational governments representing these diverse communities, particularly in addressing national concerns.

For example, the governing body of the current National Economic and Development Authority could be re-organized to be comprised of appointed subnational (regional) representatives. However, for this office to effectively function as the national congregation of the various communities in the country, it should not be a mere advisory council. It should be designed to have substantive policy-making functions as well.

Notably, the International Guidelines on Decentralisation and Strengthening of Local Authorities issued by the UN-HABITAT recommend that, “Mechanisms for combining bottom-up and top-down approaches in the provision of national and local services should be established.” Such a system could indeed engender a genuine sense of ownership from the polity over crucial policy decisions made by the national government as well as a collective commitment to their successful implementation.

Additionally, the League of Provinces organized by the Local Government Code (See Sections 502-504) can be re-designed to have the same function as the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) or Canada’s Council of the Federation (COF).

The role of COAG is to promote policy reforms that are of national significance or those which need coordinated action by all state and territory governments of the Australian federation. On the other hand, the COF is a national platform to sustain meaningful relations between subnational governments based on recognition of the diversity within the federation and to enable the leaders of these governments (Premiers) to work collaboratively to strengthen the Canadian federation. Needless to say, elevating the League of Provinces to this level will be a huge improvement from its current function as a mere talkfest for local politicos.

Similarly, a regular summit convening all the Panlalawigang Pederasyon ng mga Sangguniang Kabataan organized by Section 21 (3) of the Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act of 2015 can be mandated.

The purpose of this forum will be to give Filipino youths from all over the country the opportunity to address national leaders from all three branches of government. This reform measure is particularly vital because young Filipinos comprise a significant segment of the Philippine electorate.

And as clearly demonstrated in the recent presidential election, getting them actively involved in politics is no longer a problem. This is just one way of harnessing their energy and enthusiasm and hopefully prevent them from ever feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned.

In sum, creating these institutions quite simply establishes an official testament of Filipino unity and diversity. In fact, these reforms are worth pursuing whether in the context of the federalism movement or not.

It must be emphasized however, that the purpose of these institutions is not to represent local interests but to guarantee that the various local voices are represented in promoting national interests.

The offices proposed here are specially designed for issues that require a cohesive nationwide effort. Their primary goal is to ensure that important national policies are formulated through a deliberative process whereby the views and insights of the regions are duly considered.

Clearly, the federalization process must accommodate diversity within the state. This massive undertaking must not be treated as merely the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level.

Because more than anything else, the federation of the Philippines should be about all Filipinos further internalizing a shared responsibility for shaping the future of the whole country.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.”)

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