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Why I voted the way I did

In the sub-committee that was tasked with reviewing the structure of government, Justice Antonio Nachura, our chair, asked me to report on the parliamentary system of the Westminster type, an assignment I readily accepted because I have taught the subject “Comparative Constitutions” for some time now both at the Graduate School of Law of San Beda and the Graduate School of the Cagayan State University.  

I presented it to the sub-committee that also listened to the presentations of Ka Nene Pimentel for the presidential-federal system and of Dean Julio Teehankee on the dual executive system: president and prime minister.  At the plenary meeting, I got an unexpected “promotion” by our chair, retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno.  He anointed me “advocate” of the parliamentary system—with the task of winning over members of the Consultative Committee (ConCom) to the parliamentary side.  I failed—mine was the sole vote for a Westminster parliament—but not miserably, I hope.  I like to think almost half of the members present who voted for a “hybrid” government did so in part because they saw the point in having a parliament!

What I have long been enamored about with the parliamentary system is the ready accountability of the government— and the ease with which ministers lackadaisical in the performance of their duties can be called to task.  It is true, of course, that the traditional “separation of powers” associated with a presidential system is lacking in a parliamentary configuration.  

But if the purpose of separating powers is to avoid their concentration, the aisle of parliament that separates the majority from the opinion is the in-built check against the tyranny of the majority.  The opposition will not allow the failings of the majority to pass unnoticed, and the majority cannot be cavalier about its unpopularity—a mistake that could spell its demise at the next general elections.  While it is true that the continuance of government in power depends on the support it has from the majority, it is likewise true that the government (the prime minister and his ministers) set the pace for the rest of parliament: forming the legislative agenda, spelling out the program of government and holding members in check through the efficiency of a system of Party Whips.

The confidence motions are the most effective check on government.  “That this House has lost confidence in this government.” (Of course, in Westminster, they would say “Her Majesty’s government”), and if this has the majority of votes, the government comes crashing down.  When a confidence motion is introduced by the government itself—either as a stand-alone motion, or attached to a bill of major importance —then there is the implied threat that a  recalcitrant assembly could face dissolution, and the nation, forced to general elections again.  When introduced by the opposition, however, it is a threat to the government and may cause the government to resign.

While, indeed, the Westminster Parliament originated as the Parliament of England, a unitary state, because it used to be a monarchy, the merit of the parliamentary system is that it is perfectly compatible with a federal system.  And while the UK is not traditionally classed as a “federal” state, the fact is that the Acts of Union that have resulted in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland coming together and holding on together as the “United” Kingdom justifies its association with federal democracies—and its parliamentary structure has allowed that union to happen.

In the end, the Committee voted for the familiar.  I was asked why, despite an unwritten constitution, British parliamentary government ran like a very well-oiled machine.  I answered: Largely in part to their respect for tradition—because much of the British constitution consists in conventions and customs that have taken the force of law.  The traditional is the safer course: it forestalls conjecture, tempers the element of surprise, takes the sting from out of the unknown and makes things more predictable.  That, to me, is why, in the end, my best arguments notwithstanding, the Committee voted to retain the presidential system—in a federal setting!

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Topics: Justice Antonio Nachura

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