The 18th Congress: Battlefield for testy bills, vantage point for Duterte
MANILA, Philippines – Bunny Cadag is a transgender woman who was proud of it. A fast-food company that hired her for a transcription job was not.
When Cadag was asked to do a transcription job in 2017 by the company for its three-day interview of applicants at its office in Ortigas, she wanted to express confidence and wear what she thought was appropriate—a plain, black dress.
But after the first day of the interview session which Cadag was assigned to transcribe, she received a call from the company telling her the way she dressed was offensive.
“They were quite offended that there’s a transgender inside one of their session rooms,” Cadag said. “They can’t take it because they’re supposed to cater to kids, families, religious groups, Catholic views and all,” she said in an interview with INQUIRER.net.
Cadag was told she could keep the job but not at the Ortigas office. Recording of what she has to transcribe would be just sent to her instead. The company wanted Cadag to be out of sight.
“I was offended,” Cadag told Inquirer.net. “Why will it be just sent by e-mail? Why don’t they want me to come back? I was discriminated because of the way I wanted to handle myself.”
Cadag gave up the job but not the fight for justice. She demanded an explanation from the fast-food company and filed complaints at its office and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
When she was met with silence by both, Cadag turned to where cases like hers can be ventilated freely—social media. And it worked. The Facebook post she made about how she was discriminated against received 15,000 likes and was shared 4,200 times. It caught the attention of the company and more importantly, of news media.
The company relented and issued a public apology to Cadag, who had considered it a victory not just for herself but for the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines which continues to suffer from various forms of discrimination.
“I made a stand not only for myself but for many others I consider elder siblings in the LGBT community who are also suffering from the same kind of discrimination in offices or corporations,” Cadag wrote in her viral Facebook post.
“I made a stand for the more numerous young LGBT who would probably be subjected to gender checks first before they can practice their chosen professions,” she said. (Her original posts are in Filipino)
Cadag, recalling the apology, said she thought at that time that it was enough. Two years after, however, she said she wished she could have gone further.
“Something seemed to be wrong,” she told Inquirer.net in Filipino. “I feel like I was not content with what happened because things were getting worse.”
“I should have filed cases to teach them a lesson,” Cadag said.
One thing was absent at that time, however. A law that makes it a crime to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Had there been such a law when Cadag went through her ordeal, she said she would have been able to sue the company that deemed her unfit to be seen in public.
At the time Cadag was being discriminated against, a proposed law, called Sexual Orientation and Gender identity and Expression (Sogie) Equality had just passed in the House of Representatives, which could be a breakthrough. But the same bill got stuck in the Senate in the period of interpellation.
Until the waning days of the 17th Congress, the bill did not move an inch from the interpellation period at the Senate, making it the proposed measure stuck in interpellation the longest at the chamber.
Dennis Coronacion, a political analyst, said the Sogie bill had joined other controversial proposals in Congress facing strong opposition from House members and senators who remain largely “conservative.”
Senators, he said, were likely to keep their hands off from hot potato issues, deciding to “play it safe” to keep from losing supporters in their next election bids.
“Most of the time, they would like to play it safe,” Coronacion said of senators. “They don’t want to offend the Catholic vote,” he said.
There is no visible Catholic vote, however, although the Church had expressed strong objections to allowing partners of the same sex to marry and to engage in sexual intercourse.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, however, does not belong to what Coronacion said were senators who would rather play safe.
Hontiveros, the author of the Sogie bill, said she remained confident that the measure would pass the 18th Congress because of “new allies and champions.”
“The concept has also become more mainstream. The tide is definitely turning,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
LGBT rights are just among other controversial measures that the 18th Congress was sure to face. Two other bills are waiting in the wings—the revival of the death penalty and legalizing divorce.
Duterte death cheering squad
The death penalty bill has the strongest support among allies of the Duterte administration who toe President Rodrigo Duterte’s line that solving criminality required the ruthlessness of public executions.
Senators Manny Pacquiao, a born-again Christian, and Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, the first enforcer of Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign, are behind Senate Bill No. 189 and 226 which seek the death penalty for drug-related crimes.
Another proposal, by Duterte’s most trusted sidekick Sen. Bong Go, wanted plunder included among crimes punishable by death. Plunder is currently punishable only by life imprisonment.
A bill filed by Sen. Panfilo Lacson, former national police chief who had imposed a tough disciplinary regimen on policemen, wanted the death penalty for other heinous crimes like treason, piracy, rape, terrorism, destructive arson and others.
Lacson said an “alarming surge of heinous crimes in recent years” should prompt the return of capital punishment and depriving criminals of their freedom by keeping them in jail was no longer a deterrent to crime.
Lacson and Go wanted lethal injection to be the means of execution, lethal injection being considered as the more humane way to snuff life out of a condemned human being. Dela Rosa, though not specifying it in his bill, wanted death convicts executed by firing squad, the same way that national hero Jose Rizal died in the hands of Spaniards.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, a longtime death penalty advocate, said he believed bills on restoring the death penalty would finally see the light of day at the Senate now that the chamber is dominated by allies of Duterte.
But he said he believed, too, that proposals to restore death penalty were highly likely to have a higher chance of passing at the Senate if these referred only to “high-level” drug traffickers. The violent anti-drug campaign of Duterte has been criticized for supposedly failing to capture or kill big-time drug dealers.
Sotto, however, said he felt that restoring the death penalty would be smooth sailing for the Senate now because of the number of Duterte allies now packing the chamber.
He said his personal preference was for only high-level drug traffickers to suffer capital punishment.
Analyst Coronacion said there is a “good chance” that the death penalty would pass the 18th Congress because the Senate, the last remaining obstacle to capital punishment, is now populated by allies of Duterte.
He said he observed, though, that there was no friction among senators when the proposal to execute death convicts would be applied only to drug-related crimes.
“Death penalty is evolving,” Coronacion said. “This time, senators want to punish crimes using drugs. If the crime is drug-related, senators agree.”
But another analyst, Ramon Casiple, said restoring the death penalty still faces an “uphill battle” despite Duterte having more allies now at the Senate.
Standing in the way of the death penalty, according to Casiple, is an international treaty signed by the Philippines that shuns capital punishment.
The 18th Congress has to “overcome the reason why it did not pass in the last Congress and the reason is not about votes. It’s about the international convention,” Casiple told Inquirer.net in a phone interview.
He was referring to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which sought to abolish capital punishment among treaty signatories.
“The problem with the death penalty is you cannot get out of the Optional Protocol without moving out of the entire covenant. In effect, it’s like bypassing the United Nations,” Casiple said.
“The question is are we prepared or not (to junk the treaty),” Casiple said. “There are real implications for us as part of the international community in the UN. Are we prepared to accept the consequences of retreating from the convention?”
Courting the Church
Another influencing factor in the vote to restore capital punishment is the Catholic Church, Casiple said. Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, fighting for support from the Church to keep her in power at the height of the “Hello Garci” vote fraud scandal, heeded a Church position against the death penalty and shelved its enforcement.
She continued to take this position when, as a member of the House representing Pampanga province, she voted against one of several death penalty bills on the House floor.
The other controversial bill that the incoming Congress would have to grapple with is one seeking to legalize divorce, another proposition being frowned upon by the Church.
Senator Hontiveros, the author of the Sogie bill, is also pushing the passage of the divorce bill.
The House passed a divorce bill but its counterpart version at the Senate was orphaned at the committee level.
Efforts to legalize divorce, which then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was supporting, have surfaced since 2005 in the 13th Congress.
Freedom for women
Under a bill filed by Hontiveros, divorce is the right answer for women who are in abusive relationships.
Casiple sees a divided Church on the divorce issue, however. He said this division was not seen when the Church tackled the Reproductive Health Act head-on.
“In the case of divorce, the religious community is divided,” he said.
But the position of the Church wouldn’t be enough to sway votes to or away from the controversial bills, he said. “It really evolves in the nature of the bill itself,” Casiple said.
At the Senate, Casiple sees the Senate President playing a deciding role on divorce. Sotto has publicly expressed opposition to divorce. He has been married to actress Helen Gamboa for several decades.
Casiple said Sotto’s opposition to divorce would surely have an impact on how the Senate handles the proposal.
Coronacion said a “radical” change, however, is needed in Congress for these controversial bills to pass.
“Majority of legislators should be progressive,” Coronacion said. If not, these bills would be “diluted” to make it palatable to legislators against them, he said.
How much weight would Duterte’s support have for passage of these bills? The President has the power to certify bills as urgent which would require Congress to act with dispatch on these.
But Coronacion said Duterte’s support alone would not guarantee passage of the bills.
He said although Duterte enjoys the support of a “supermajority” coalition in the House, his preferences are not more powerful than legislators’ “self-interests.”
“Self-interest will prevail,” Coronacion said.
Casiple, however, does not see Duterte putting his stamp of approval on any of the controversial measures, even the death penalty or the divorce bill.
He said Duterte was likely to spend the remaining time of his tenure on his own priority measures instead of gambling on the controversial bills.
“If these controversial bills have no bearing on his legacy I don’t think he will go into it to spend his political capital,” Casiple said.
“Is the President prepared to spend his political capital on controversial bills or would he rather focus on his priority bills?” Casiple added.
All these would be known just after Duterte delivers his fourth State of the Nation Address on Monday (July 22) to a Congress now made more loyal to him by results of the May 13 elections./TSB/ac
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.