Monday, July 25, 2005

Mrs Arroyo's state of the nation: towards a responsible system of government

In clearest terms in her State of the Nation address to Congress, Philippines President Mrs Gloria Arroyo expressed her wish for a parliamentary system of government for the Philippines. The term parliamentary is not very accurate. What is more accurate is the term "cabinet system". The cabinet is a collective executive of ministers headed by a prime minister and they are all responsible to the legislature.

Mrs Arroyo would want a system similar to the Philippines' neighbours as she has indicated. But what kind of cabinet system would we have? We have several choices. 1) Singapore, 2) Malaysia, 3) Thailand 4) Indonesia and if we consider the following as close neighbours, 5) Australia and 6) Japan.

Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Japan and Thailand have systems modelled after that of Europe. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia being former British colonies are modelled after the Westminster parliament in London. Although they have introduced modifications to their parliamentary practice, they have largely preserved the Westminster traditions that work because of strong respect for convention. Convention are the unwritten rules that are commonly accepted by a nation and have legal force. Convention presupposes a strong respect for institutions of state.

Japan and Thailand are modelled after continental models. Japan for instance is modelled after that of Germany. Australia and Malaysia are federations and have an upper house with less powers than that of the representatives. Japan has an upper house of councilors with less powers than that of the lower house.

Mrs Arroyo wants a federal set up but Speaker de Venecia wants a unicameral chamber. But if we have to create a political entity such as a state, the states must be represented in Parliament. In many systems they are represented in the upper house. But the upper house has less powers than that of the lower house.

Nonetheless, all these parliaments have one thing in common and this is responsible government. The government of the day is in power because it has the confidence of the legislature who in turn are responsible to the electorate.

Do we have this responsible mindset? I think we have a long way to go. The ill suited Presidential system has by its very ethos does not create a responsible governance mindset. We have to develop a strong respect for convention first. We may borrow these conventions from Westminster or Berlin or Paris or Madrid but we have to respect these. Thus I have no great respect for those who boycotted Mrs Arroyo's address. This for me is a failure of duty. The state of the nation address was once a convention of the US Congress that we have borrowed and made part of our own constitution .

I also find it very silly that individual politicians make their own state of the nation outside congress. They should make these statements in camera. In a cabinet system it is convention that the leader of the opposition makes the opposition right of reply speech right after the government makes its speech which in Westminster is read by Her Majesty the Queen. The opposition speech is also eagerly awaited and broadcast throughout the country.

But the cabinet system has roots in this country. Political historians have long known that the roles of Quezon and Osmena during the American colonial period were as de facto premiers who needed the confidence of the cabinet and national assembly.

So we are already in the transition period to a responsible system of government. Let us continue to build and respect our institutions of state.

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