Ex-Senate President: Con-ass should be inclusive, transparent

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 18) — A constituent assembly for charter change should be transparent and inclusive — even if it means holding public consultations in remote areas, a former Senate President said Thursday.

"It's all right to have a constituent assembly provided that there should be public hearings — not only in Manila, but also in far-flung areas all over the country," federalism Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel, Jr. told CNN Philippines' The Source.

He added the process should be "open, public, and covered by media" so that the people will be able to participate and air their side.

The Constitution provides two modes to introduce amendments — a constitutional convention (con-con) where people vote for delegates who will write the new constitution, and a constituent assembly (con-ass) composed of current lawmakers who will perform the same task. The proposed changes should be approved by the people in a referendum.

President Rodrigo Duterte endorsed a con-ass, as a con-con would take more time and possibly more budget. However, critics point out partisan interests of lawmakers may influence their proposed charter amendments.

Pimentel was present in a Senate hearing on charter change on Wednesday. The resource persons — including former chief justices and constitution framers — mostly recommended a constitutional convention. They also recommended the two houses of Congress to vote separately.

Related: Congress should vote separately on charter change – ex-chief justices, charter framers

On the other hand, the House of Representatives approved a resolution on Tuesday to convene a constituent assembly. Senators are against a joint vote on proposed changes to the Constitution as this would make them irrelevant — 23 senators against over 290 congressmen. There was even a warning to senators who may back the House agenda.

Related: Lacson wants to expel senators who attend House con-ass

Pimentel said any move to expel a colleague from the chamber should go through due process, even as he cautioned colleagues against hasty decision-making.

"It's a good threat. But... the senator will have to involve the entire Senate itself. Therefore, it's a process that will have to be done democratically," he said.

He also advised the Senate minority on Wednesday, "We must never allow supermajority to trample on our rights."

While Pimentel prefers a con-con, he is amenable to a con-ass given the timeline set by President Duterte. Duterte and Pimentel are members of the ruling party, PDP-Laban.

Duterte promised a shift to federalism during his presidential campaign, giving Congress six years — or the President's full term — to complete the change.

"The next President might have a different idea already," said Pimentel. "That is the reason why probably we have to go along with it — but... the people must be allowed to participate through public hearings all over the nation."

On the other hand, Senator Ralph Recto believes the short period to carry out charter change may as well spell its death in the Senate. The House Speaker is pushing for a plebiscite by May this year, while other lawmakers said this is too soon.

Related: Charter change 'dead' in Senate – Recto

No limits to freedom of speech

Meanwhile, Pimentel said some provisions in the Constitution, such as the Bill of Rights, should remain.

Asked about the move to revise the free speech provision, he said, "I'm not aware of any such move, but certainly I will oppose it."

A House subcommittee drawing up proposed charter changes on Tuesday proposed an amendment to the free speech provision to only protect "responsible exercise" of freedom of speech. Critics slammed the proposal, fearing this will give discretion in defining "responsible exercises."

Related: House body wants amendment to free speech

"With freedom of speech and press, it will be more difficult for those in power to maneuver the processes of government to suit their own ends," said Pimentel.

Pimentel is a long time advocate of federalism, and the father of incumbent Senate President Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III. He also authored the Local Government Code of 1991, which was an attempt to decentralize government functions.

Listen to the rest of The Source's interview with Pimentel here.