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Getting constitutional governance right

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Benito L. Teehankee

The View From Taft

Getting constitutional governance right

Our legislators are busy discussing changing the Constitution — again. Our lawmakers, often with prodding from Malacañang and special interest groups, think that the Constitution is so flawed that changes are badly needed. But before even talking about changing the Constitution, shouldn’t we first ask ourselves how well we’ve done based on the current one and where we need to improve?

A simple way to do this is to look at the nation as being like a cooperative organization. The Constitution will, analogously, express the vision, mission, core values, structure, and strategies of our republican cooperative organization. This is a limited analogy, I admit, but a helpful one.

If we think of ourselves as Philippines Cooperative, Inc., what are our vision and mission? A vision is an ideal future state we all aspire for while a mission is what the State exists to do. Carrying out our mission well and consistently should help us reach our vision. Section 9 under State Policies captures the future we aspire for and what we need to do, through the State, to get there. The vision is “prosperity and independence of the nation and … people [free] from poverty…” and the mission is to “…provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.”

Core values are meant to embody our national culture and character — what we all ultimately should believe in and stand for as Filipinos. Carrying out our mission and reaching our vision would be hollow if, in the process, we conduct ourselves in ways that are un-Filipino. Core values, therefore, serve as our moral compass as a country. Our core values appear in the Preamble and include the common good, truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace.

Now, let’s do a reality check. With respect to the vision: Are we there yet? Definitely not. Thirty years after ratifying the Constitution, our country remains plagued by poverty, with some regions exceeding 50% below the poverty line.

How are we doing on the mission? Not that well either. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in our part of the world.

Moreover, more than 10 million Filipinos work abroad, separated from their families. Economic and productive resources as well as public infrastructure are concentrated in Metro Manila and other urban centers. Wealth and income are concentrated among the top 50 or so families, and productive output is concentrated among the top 50 conglomerates.

What about our national culture? Have we been true to our core values? The concentration of productive capacity, resources, and infrastructure tells us that equality, justice, and the common good are not operative values in our country. On the other hand, our long-running communist and Muslim insurgency problems and the facts-starved and divisive public discourse on issues will make anyone doubt whether truth, freedom, peace, and love reign.

What has happened to us? After the euphoria of the EDSA Revolution and after having been the toast of international media, how could we have gone so astray?

The short answer is a lack of public education and civic engagement combined with the short-term orientation of public leaders. No work went into aligning our public leaders and people around the vision, mission, and core values as expressed in the Constitution. There was no public education program on the Constitution, in general, and on what our core values mean, in particular. The common good principle, for one, is mentioned seven times in the Constitution, but is rarely invoked or explained by public leaders.

Not surprisingly, ordinary citizens would be hard put to explain what our core values mean. Essentially, therefore, we are a country without a moral compass. This explains the low level of civic engagement of most citizens and the winner-take-all attitude of many among the elite.

With few notable exceptions, our public leaders’ planning horizons rarely extend beyond the next election cycle. Hence, programs of long-term benefit for the people, such as infrastructure development, genuine land reform, and the passage of an anti-dynasty law and an anti-trust law, have been delayed or neglected even if we need these to achieve the goals of the Constitution.

These two causes feed on each other.

Since citizens do not understand the Constitution, they do not demand accountability from their leaders to promote the common good. Conversely, public leaders are more than happy to provide expedient fixes to stay in power — a clear case of the blind leading the blind.

The Constitution is a sacred covenant between the government and the people on how the country should be governed for us to achieve our aspirations as a nation. It’s not a plaything for politicians to tinker with when they feel like it. But unless we citizens take the hallowed principles of the Constitution to heart and actively fight for them, we will remain a constitutional democracy only on paper. And we would deserve it.

 

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is a full professor of management and organization at De La Salle University.

benito.teehankee@dlsu.edu.ph