Federalism is not heaven

Federalism is not heaven Featured

I’m told that in public gatherings assembled by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and local government units, audiences are practically being promised heaven under a federal form of government, with hardly any serious effort to explain how or why. In a firsthand account from one who was in one such forum, the speaker asked the audience: “How many meals do you eat in a day?” Hearing answers saying they only have one or two, the speaker declared, “Once we have a federal form of government, all of you will be able to eat three meals a day or more!” It’s a real stretch, but certainly an effective way to win support for federalism among the uninformed, undiscriminating and uneducated among us.

Sad to say, it’s quite likely that there are enough out there for whom that reasoning is enough, and who can swing the referendum vote for federalism if and when we get to that point. Like it or not, those who would care to study the pros and cons of the federalism debate are grossly outnumbered by those who wouldn’t. It is thus incumbent on those who would to help those who wouldn’t, so the latter may know, think about, and evaluate the issues enough to make a reasoned judgment, whichever way one eventually goes. The important thing is that people are able to make an informed choice on something with such a profound effect on our nation’s future.

Sadly, the government cannot be relied upon to play this important role, as it’s already in the mode of campaigning for federalism, rather than informing the public fully and objectively regarding both sides of the debate. Acting Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has been quoted as saying, “The DILG through the Center for Federalism and Constitutional Reform … [will] lead the nationwide campaign to inform and educate the public about the merits of federalism.” Nothing about demerits or options? The DILG website describes its role as “the focal organization for field level machinery for the awareness, acceptance, conversion and action of qualified voters to support a new constitution and a federal system of government.” One hopes that the Commission on Higher Education, which will reportedly mobilize its network of state colleges and universities nationwide, properly sees its job as to inform and consult, rather than to campaign for a foregone conclusion.

Many issues must indeed be considered for a reasoned judgment on a matter wherein the devil lies in the details. I recently listened to detailed presentations on institutional and fiscal issues on federalism by two scholarly experts (one from the University of the Philippines, and one from the government think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies or PIDS). They explained important points, two of which I share below, which merit much wider exposure as Filipinos decide whether or not to support a shift from our current unitary system to a federal one.
The first point is that federalism does not equate to greater decentralization. There are federalized governments that are less decentralized than unitary ones, and prime examples lie right next to us. Malaysia is described to have a centralized federal system where the constituent states play relatively limited roles in relation to the center. On the other hand, Indonesia has achieved highly decentralized governance under its unitary presidential system. Federal systems range from highly centralized (as in Venezuela) to highly decentralized (United States), just as unitary systems range from highly centralized (Singapore) to highly decentralized (Norway). If stronger decentralization is the goal, federalism need not be the answer.

The second point concerns the huge incremental cost that a shift to a federal system will entail, just by the sheer number of new legislators, officials and staff it will create. PIDS puts the additional cost in the range of P44-72
billion, not even counting changes in the judiciary. New legislators alone, let alone their staff, will number anywhere between 821 and 2,380, based on existing federalism proposals.

Won’t we simply be creating a government by politicians, of politicians, and for politicians? I shudder at the thought.

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