The temerity of independence
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - June 13, 2020 - 12:00am

The Bayanihan Act expired last week or will on June 25 per its own sunset provision. Hailed as a timely and resolute whole of government, whole of society response to the pandemic (only one dissenting vote in the Senate and nine in the House), the law has had a profound effect on the autonomy of our institutions and the liberties of our people.

You’d think that local autonomy is served by the strategic bent of the national government enabled, local government unit (LGU) led response to the pandemic. From the title, we see that LGUs play the starring role. STAR columnist Cito Beltran, however, observed this Monday that the national government has ended up micro managing the state of affairs in every region or province.

Sacrificial. The situation of our LGUs under Bayanihan is out of paradigm. Under the constitutional guarantee of autonomy, they were supposed to be inching closer to more meaningful independence. The Bayanihan Act, while in effect, has jettisoned that.

In normal times, LGUs would exercise powers that are expressly granted by law, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to what was granted, and those essential to the declared, indispensable objects and purposes thereof. This famous formulation, known as Dillon’s Rule, has justified the interpretation of local government power for decades. The Local Government Code of 1991 has liberalized this further by providing for the interpretation of powers in favor of the LGU, when in doubt.

Pursuant to express constitutional mandate, the extent of presidential power over local governments was up to general supervision only. This means he can call out the LGU for acting outside its powers. But he cannot replace the LGU’s decision with his own. However, under these extraordinary times, LGUs have had to march to the beat of Manila’s imperial drum. What they can and cannot do is not subject to what Judge Dillon would concede but rather to whatever the IATF through the Department of the Interior and Local Government dictates. From a benign general supervision, the relation has evolved into what local government experts have termed as “enhanced supervision.”

Illusory. This has resulted to the opposite of emancipation. Going back to Cito, “Governors are denied the right and the responsibility to govern, Mayors and Village Chiefs have ended up being clerks, accountants and errand boys of the IATF and what’s worse is that the IATF is imposing policies and instructions, making pronouncements based on the arm-chair science of experts located in Metro Manila. The national government has already done a good job of fighting off the first wave of the plague, now let’s give the elected officials some flexibility to fine tune the health and safety protocols as well as the stabilization of their respective areas and economies.”

When national and local governments share a policy area, it becomes a more complicated exercise to find fault or to reward the deserving. It is critical that the electorate be assured this discernment before they choose who to entrust their fates to next time.

We need to fine tune emergency management scenarios to be better prepared for future  pandemics. Conventional localized quarantine frameworks contributed to the rude awakening that no country was prepared for a health emergency of national proportions. A clearer demarcation or amalgamation of national and local spheres of action should be among the top agendas for policy reform.

Balance. Yesterday, Independence was celebrated in different ways. Government commemorated our heroic frontliners.  We missed the Mañanita at UP, the adversarial mass action against the Anti-Terror Bill. Government tried to hijack this with warnings of dispersal and arrests.

The consensus from public health experts is that restrictions on assembly are necessary. This means they are backed by scientific evidence and are narrowly tailored to the public interest. These are content neutral – not limited to political protest but applicable to all, secular or non-secular.

But aren’t there less restrictive ways to enforce this particular health intervention, short of outright bans? Social distancing, wearing of masks and observance of responsible protocols, specially at a time when mobility outside of our homes has been relaxed, are adequate safety layers to protect the protesters even against themselves.

This issue is not peculiar to the Philippines. The hotspots for mass gatherings, peaceful in most but riotous in several places, are the big US cities. And there are identical debates on impermissible curtailment of political rights, several already before the courts. The World Health Organization has not discouraged the exercise of these political rights  worldwide. They reminded all who would join to do so safely.

The PNP parades the IATF GCQ guidelines. The Mañanita group invokes the Constitution. The government must balance its duty to protect public health against the need to preserve the liberties of speech and assembly. Neither of these imperatives give the wielder the absolute freedom to exercise their power. We applaud both camps for yesterday’s peaceful, unimpeded exercise of constitutional rights.

Arigatou Gozaimasu. Resilience, economic stimulus package more than nine percent of GDP, strong fundamentals. For these, the Japan Credit Rating Agency is confident that our  downturn will be limited and the government will keep the momentum for reforms. Hence, their upgrade of the Philippine credit rating from BBB+ to A-.

This bump up magnifies the tightrope between the P1.3 trillion stimulus passed by our Congressmen versus the lower P130 billion proposed by economic managers. Congressmen Joey Salceda and Stella Quimbo gently remind Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez: that “saving for a rainy day” swagger for the fiscal prudence record? Well, it’s raining.

Sec. Dominguez would respect constitutional safeguards against budgeting funds we don’t have. Pass the P1.3 trillion version and you end up with the largest unfunded mandate in history.

Passages. We condole with the family and friends of Atty. Perfecto Yasay Jr. of the Philippine and New York State Bar. We remember the former Foreign Affairs Secretary and Securities and Exchange Commission Chair for his kindness and generosity.

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