COMMENTARY: The Foundational Framework of Federalism

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/11 September) — Many federalism advocates were expecting President Rodrigo Duterte to push even harder for federalism in his second State of the Nation Address. But the President could only say that this matter is something “we have to tackle sooner or later.”

That time has come given that the members of his Consultative Committee on constitutional reform have been named, although they have y et to be formally announced.

Pertinently, the leaders of both chambers of Congress have declared that federalism will be treated as a priority in the Second Regular Session of the 17th Congress.  Although it must be noted that their respective committees responsible for constitutional reform have already conducted hearings towards this end.

So the same federalism proponents may be right. The federalization of the Philippines is indeed about to begin.

Apolinario Mabini believed that federalism, “besides being the most perfect among the republican forms, is best suited to the topography of our country”. Clearly, this is an endorsement of federalization that must not to be ignored.

However, a caveat not be ignored as well was raised by Raphael N. Montes in Understanding Federalism, “Designing a federal system is not a very easy task. Besides its basic principles, federalism is very customizable. The peculiarities of a country would define the different features of its own brand of federalism.”

In sum, a federal structure of government is a good fit for the country but defining the nitty-gritty of the federal framework will be very difficult.  In the words of our President, this endeavour would entail “long, very contentious discussions”.

Whether the federal structure will be presidential, semi-presidential or parliamentary, bi-cameral or unicameral, is indeed up for debate. But there are three fundamental features of a federal framework which are indispensable. These are: 1) a streamlined allocation of responsibilities between the central and state governments; 2) a state government structure that reflects a collective approach to governance; and, 3) mechanisms that foster cooperation and collaboration among the state governments in addressing national concerns.

First, the assignment of responsibilities between the federal and state governments must be clear and coherent. The distribution scheme must be formulated in such a way that the designation of accountability is unequivocal.

This prescription is very critical because the correct allocation of tax powers and other revenue-raising measures between the two levels of government hinges on it. It will also influence how the scope of federal legislative power is delineated.

Second, the current sub-national government apparatus must be replaced because it has entrenched the patronage relationship between the local executive and his constituency. An effective countermeasure against this culture of patronage in local politics is to integrate a sense of community at the state level government. The structure itself must be configured to facilitate a collective governance mindset.

An example of such would be a parliamentary type of configuration like the “leader-and-cabinet model” used by local governments in the United Kingdom. As a corollary to this restructuring, the mechanism of sectoral representation can be further enhanced in the “cabinet” to widen and deepen community participation in policy formulation and implementation.

Other measures to ensure the sustained and significant involvement of the people in local politics such as an anti-local dynasty mechanism and political party prescriptions are likewise imperative. Keeping in mind of course that the engagement of the community in state-level governance is crucial to the success of the federal regime itself.

Third, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the constituent state governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. Indeed, federation is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level, but it is also about institutionalizing coordinated efforts towards national development.

It must be emphasized that for the government structure to be truly federal, the new charter must depart from the non-self-executory standing of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution. Meaning, these three fundamental attributes of federalism must be evident in the text of the projected federal constitution itself and should no longer require any enabling legislation for its institutionalization.

A last caveat that must not be ignored comes from noted federalism expert and constitutional scholar from the Melbourne Law School, Professor Cheryl Saunders. She warns that whatever the final federal design is, there should be amongst the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to making the new system work. Otherwise, federalization may not produce the outcomes many Filipinos are so excited about right now. (Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LLM is a legislative and policy consultant, law lecturer, a Non-Resident Research Fellow in the Ateneo School of Government, and author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He is a regular contributor in various news and public affairs organizations in the Philippines and Australia.)