In a conversation I had earlier today, one interesting point that was raised was the difference in the quality of the arguments made for and against constitutional reform. The general impression among various observers is that the pro-reform advocates have gotten off to a good start in both the empirical and propaganda sense, while those identified with the anti-reform point of view – ‘the usual suspects’, as it were – have been caught off-guard, disorganized and scrambling to hold back a tidal surge of public and political opinion against the status quo.
A good example is a column in today’s online issue of the Manila Bulletin by Romeo Pefianco, the latest in a series of rather bizarre installments decrying the constitutional reform initiative. Part of the opacity of Atty. Pefianco’s argument can be attributed to his odd, bullet-point writing style; the man is not an easy read even under the best of circumstances. But a lot of what makes his point elusive and ineffective is his apparent difficulty in deciding just what point he wants to make, which is perhaps why the MB editor felt it necessary to clarify the paper’s anti-reform policy parenthetically as an introduction to the article:
(Editor’s note: The Constituent Assembly or the Constitutional Convention cannot be stopped from doing more harm, as noted by the author.)
One would assume that the article explains what “harm” the Constituent Assembly or the Constitutional Convention would “do more of,” but Pefianco never quite gets to that. Instead, he first complains
When lawmakers declare that the 1987 Cory Constitution is in dire need of amendments, the proponents have no specific draft of their intent in printed booklet form or a clean mimeograph of the proposed amendments.
That is not a completely unreasonable issue to raise, except that “the proponents” have been fairly clear that the amendment process, as they intend to pursue it, has not nearly reached the stage at which a “specific draft of their intent” can be produced. So in this case Pefianco is offering a bit of a red herring – no one knows what the results of constitutional reform are intended to be, so rather than run the risk of undesirable or unintended results, the whole exercise should be avoided.
Pefianco then launches into a confusing discussion of the efforts of President Quezon to extend his term beyond that mandated by a 1940 amendment to the 1935 Constitution, as a way to illustrate “that bending the Constitution is easier than making it.” It’s a point that epically fails the “So What?” Test. What the maneuverings to keep Quezon in office beyond his expected term in the midst of World War II have to do with the current effort to open the discussion on constitutional reform in no way relate to Pefianco’s apparent thesis that “bending” the Constitution is inherently bad. In that context, one might reasonably ask why the current sacrosanct Constitution includes rather straightforward provisions for amendment.
Having established a “back story” for the current issue at hand by detailing a random mini-crisis in the Philippines’ political history, Pefianco finally gets around to specifying what he finds so horrifying about constitutional reform:
Once Congress convenes itself as a Constituent Assembly by a vote of three fourths of ALL its members, no TRO can stop it from 1) extending the president’s term by four years, 2) creating the office of prime minister in lieu of vice president, 3) increasing, 4) abolishing the term limit for members of Congress and local officials, 5) amending the Constitution without benefit of ratification in a plebiscite, etc.
Obviously, Pefianco has not been paying much attention to the discussion, since the weight of preference, for better or worse, now seems to be for a Constitutional Convention. The Convention could, hypothetically, adjust the term of the President, create an office of Prime Minister (although why that would be done “in lieu of vice president” and not as part of a more conventional Parliamentary form of government is a mystery for which the answer can only be found in Pefianco’s fevered mind, if even there), abolish term limits, and probably other things that would fall under the category of “etc.” How they could “[increase] the compensation of elective national officials to double the pay of government corporation managers/directors,” which is not a constitutional issue, or amend the Constitution without popular ratification (something which may be technically possible but probably politically unwise), is likewise a mystery.
After all that, Pefianco exposes the real horror, the “most fearsome of all” the ideas in constitutional reform:
The most fearsome proposal is the conversion of the present system into a parliamentary government by electing 800 members from 800 constituencies with a population of 100,000 plus each as in UK. (The MPs’ wages and other benefits alone may exceed R80B at P100M each.) Why? The life or survival of a parliamentary system depends on the support of the MPs, say at least 420 to 450 of the 800.
Considering that “the proponents have no specific draft of their intent,” this is a suspiciously specific proposal. Which Pefianco apparently has a problem with because…MPs will draw salary and benefits? Quick, someone e-mail this guy the link to the “So What? ” Test. After first complaining that proponents of constitutional reform have no specific proposals, Pefianco settles for inventing one he imagines they might have to frighten his readers with the implication that the only purpose of amending the Constitution is to vastly enlarge and enrich the legislature.
At first blush, the proponents of constitutional reform ought to be pleased that the dissenting point of view towards their initiative is apparently represented by illiterate fools, but this is actually a bit of a problem. The question of whether the Constitution ought to be amended is already moot, so the lack of effective arguments against that are not an issue, but what that signals is a probable lack of coherent, alternative points of view towards specific reform initiatives that may develop. For the sake of finding the most inclusive and most relevant solutions, and most importantly, the solutions which will enjoy the widest public support, sound counter-arguments and alternatives to particular ideas must be presented.
In most every case, one solution or its opposite will be logically and practically superior, but that’s not the point. The real purpose is to elevate the debate on both sides of every issue and to encourage people to choose from clear, substance-based alternatives. The prevailing view may be the best one, but without the metric of opposing positions with which to judge it, those who hold the prevailing view will never be able to know with certainty if that view is as good as it could be. Without a more noble opposition that can muster something better than “charter change is a plot to return Arroyo to power” or “changing the charter does not make our people less fearful about tomorrow” as differing points of view, effective democracy will elude this country. Those who believe they are against constitutional reform now, and who will presumably be against specific reform concepts later, ought to consider whether they are best serving the interests of the country or even their own narrow, selfish interests by applying such comatose intellectual effort towards them.