Duterte’s Remarks on The Commission on Audit Should Get People Talking About Federalism

While no fiscally prudent individual likes big government, it is often that governmental organisations designed to better restrict government spending become bloated big government bodies themselves. Such is the case with the Philippine Commission on Audit that was established as yet another permanent body of government by the 1987 Constitution.

President Rodrigo Duterte has voiced his frustration about how the Commission on Audit (COA) has interfered with his government’s ability to finance important initiatives in line with Duterte’s vision for a more economically dynamic Philippines. Crucially, rather than simply offer a mild rebuke of the COA that would otherwise have slipped under the radar, Duterte criticised the body in his inimitable style which has thankfully got people talking about a subject that would have otherwise been ignored. Duterte said:

“Those sons of bitches in COA. That COA, everytime, there is always something wrong. What’s up with this COA? What if we kidnap someone from COA, we torture them here? Sons of bitches”.

The problem with the COA is that in trying to save money, the un-elected body is not only wasting money but is stifling the real life progress of elected officials. The bloated nature of the COA is partly due to the fact that because The Philippines is a unitary state, the COA is responsible for checking the finances of political programmes and initiatives throughout a vast and diverse country.

By contrast, in a federal system, individual federal units would be responsible for raising their own funds to be spent on local initiatives and could therefore be audited locally by a private firm on an as and when needed basis as opposed to a permanent basis. The very idea of a standing auditing agency acting as a political bureaucracy is itself symptomatic of a problem inherent in big government, even though supporters of the COA claim that its purpose is to limit frivolous spending.

By contrast, by switching to a federal and parliamentary system, the federalisation of the country would automatically reduce the cumbersome size of all national institutions while a parliamentary system would allow for specific, cost efficient ministries to be directly responsible to elected ministers as opposed to a plethora of largely unaccountable bodies created by the 1987 constitution that are grossly inflexible in respect of reacting to current political trends, due to the fact that bodies like the COA are not politically accountable on a regular basis.

The fact of the matter is that not only is the 1987 constitution very dated in respect of its economic ultra-protectionism and its convoluted style of presidential governance, but the sheer number of political bodies formed under the mandate of the 1987 constitution are far too many. The 1987 constitution expands the role of government while curtailing the role of free enterprise in a manner that is strangely anachronistic when contrasted with the desires of a population for more governmental accountability, less regulation and more economic liberty. Beyond this, when one creates politically bloated and permanent institutions like the COA, they tend to take on a life of themselves that is shielded simultaneously from democratic scrutiny, self-criticism and the pressures of having to deal with the market forces of those in the private sector. Hence, such bodies behave in a manner that is scarcely different than a corporate oligarchy. The US Federal Reserve is one such example of a body that meddles in the freedom of the private sector at the expense of the public sector, while ultimately being accountable only to itself. In The Philippines such meddlesome bodies are the rule rather than the exception.

And it is not just that the 1987 is so needlessly complex. Beyond this, the 1987 constitution has failed to accomplish the very goals of its authors. As corruption, government inefficiency, political deadlock and the flight of human capital continues to blight The Philippines in spite of Duterte’s much needed reforms to curtail these ills, clearly the 1987 constitution is not doing its job and his hampering Duterte’s job in the process. This was in fact another point Duterte was making in his comments about the COA. Arguments that “it could be worse” are simply not befitting of a nation with the potential of The Philippines.

One of the ways that elites in any society attempt to enshrine their power at the expense of a people-centred meritocracy is by enacting laws and political systems that are so needlessly complicated and convoluted that only the investors of such a system could understand its daily workings. People must realise that complex political and legal systems do not equal efficient, healthy, ethical and functional political and legal systems. In fact, the 1987 constitution is a perfect example of how a complicated system produces uniformly negative results which only further alienates the populace from genuine political engagement.

While Duterte used his distinctive sense of humour to heap scorn upon the COA, his deeper message was one which points to a logical conclusion of a federal-parliamentary system where politicians are more free to act on democratic mandates and public funds are generated and spent in a manner that is more responsive to the people who generated the wealth in the first place.

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