MANILA, Philippines - Once looked upon with distrust or scorned outright, efforts to introduce changes in the Constitution appear to be gaining support, particularly from the business sector.
At least 13 major business groups are calling on President Aquino to consider amending the economic provisions of the Constitution and reducing the list of industries where foreign participation is limited.
In a letter to the President dated June 19, the business groups said their request, if granted, would make the country’s economic growth more inclusive.
Several attempts to amend the Constitution during the previous Arroyo administration were blocked at every turn due to suspicion that they were intended to prolong her stay in power.
“We strongly urge your administration to consider amending the economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution, which restrict greater private sector participation,” the letter read. The Constitution sets a 40 percent limit on foreign ownership of certain industries.
“Pending such constitutional amendments, we suggest an initial and immediate course of action: to revise the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL) by reducing the list of industries where foreign participation is limited,” they also said.
The recommendations, they said, are based on a series of dialogues among business groups and concerned sectors.
The FINL, updated every two years, identifies investment areas or activities reserved to Filipinos.
The 13 business organizations are the Makati Business Club, Employers Confederation of the Philippines, Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Alyansa Agrikultura, Philippine Exporters Confederation, Management Association of the Philippines, American Chamber of Commerce, Australian New Zealand Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, European Chamber of Commerce, Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Korean Chamber of Commerce and Philippine Association of Multinational Companies Regional Headquarters Inc.
Apart from proposing constitutional amendments, the groups are also pushing for an accelerated implementation of strategic infrastructure projects, especially those under the public-private partnership program or PPP.
They also said effective anti-trust law and competition law should be put in place, especially now that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is getting closer to integration in 2015.
“There are several laws and issuances which do not address the complexities of the current market conditions, and as well result in overlapping jurisdictions and conflicts. Thus, we see the need for a single comprehensive law,” the letter also read.
Citing smuggling’s dire impact on revenue collection and job creation, the business groups said they are also pushing for a revamp in the Bureau of Customs as well as for the creation of a pertinent oversight body with private sector representation.
The groups also urged the government to rationalize the existing incentive-giving laws by subjecting them to periodic reviews. They are also batting for a system of coordination, reporting and monitoring for investment agencies.
To take advantage of the country’s mineral resources, the groups said they want the government to retain the existing Philippine Mining Act. “Furthermore, we encourage ensuring conformity of local ordinances to national policies, as well as respect for vested rights under existing agreements,” the groups said.
They also said it is now imperative for the government to boost power capacity to help bring down electricity costs.
“Through these measures, the business community is of firm conviction that the Philippines will continue to be among Asia’s fast rising economies, while ensuring that such economic and governance gains benefit the majority of our people that are in need the most,” the groups said.
Strong support seen
A Charter change initiative is seen to easily gain traction in the 16th Congress, according to some lawmakers.
Representatives Rufus Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro), Magtanggol Gunigundo (Valenzuela City), Romero Quimbo (Marikina City), Thelma Almario (Davao Oriental), and Joselito Atienza (Buhay party-list), in separate statements, have expressed strong support for Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to implement charter reforms.
Rodriguez, who launched last year a nationwide roadshow for Charter change under the auspices of the Centrist Democratic Party, said amending certain outdated provisions in the Constitution would result in fundamental political and economic reforms.
He said now is the best time to amend the Constitution as there are no doubts on the sincerity of President Aquino to implement structural reforms.
He said he would again file a bill calling for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution.
“I concur with Speaker Sonny Belmonte’s position that there are certain provisions in our 1987 Constitution pertaining to the economy which need to be amended,” Atienza said in statement.
“But I would like to add that interconnected with these economic provisions, we should also push for much-needed reforms in the country’s peace and order condition,” he said.
He said the Philippines recently ranked third to the last along with Myanmar and Cambodia among countries in the ASEAN region which attracted the least foreign direct investments (FDI). The ranking is shown in the World Investment Report 2013 released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). “Why should this be the case when the Philippines has so much to offer?” Atienza said.
He also said amendments should include allowing city and town mayors to regain control of local police forces.
“The experiment of having a national police force has been tried for the last 25 years, and I believe present conditions will show that it is time to return to our original, more efficient setup,” he said.
Atienza proposed that Cha-cha be done through a nationally elected constitutional convention, similar to the 1973 Con-con.
“The delegates to the constitutional convention would be elected by the people. This would remove any doubts that they might have about the whole process of amending the Constitution,” he said.
Almario, for her part, said easing restrictions on investments is a move long overdue. “We’ve been lagging behind our neighbors in attracting genuine in-depth and inclusive investments,” she said.
She said it was “time for the government to wake up to the realities of what is best for the Filipino people.”
In pushing for amendments to the Constitution, Belmonte earlier said “countries are like living creatures, which have to adapt to changing conditions to survive and develop.”
“We are witnessing rapid and radical developments in digital and information technology. We cannot afford to lag far behind. Dramatic economic, political, and social upheavals all over the world have altered and redefined territorial boundaries and diplomatic relations,” he said in a previous address to lawmakers.
Some senators also believe a Cha-cha initiative under the current administration is likely to take off, considering the generally high public trust enjoyed by the President.
“This administration is very trusted as shown in the survey and results of midterm elections. A discussion/debate on liberalizing foreign investments is healthy for our democracy. Term extensions are not,” Sen. Ralph Recto said.
“It is always good/healthy to have a public discussion on liberalizing foreign investments through constitutional amendments and whether or not it will create more jobs and greater wealth for Filipinos,” Recto said.
Sen. Vicente Sotto III also expressed support for Charter amendments – at least to the economic provisions – but said the Aquino administration should be clear about how it intends to undertake such an endeavor.
For Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, however, discussions on his and his father’s proposal for a shift to federalism should be given priority.
He said efforts to amend the 1987 Constitution have “distinctively marked the national agenda” and may have to be given due course.
He said making the country shift to a federal form of government “is most vigorously advocated by my father.” The younger Pimentel made the pronouncement before members of academe at Xavier University.
He said resources are more equitably distributed under a federal system, with states receiving 70 percent and the federal government 30 percent.
Of the 70 percent accruing to the states, 30 percent goes to state governments and 70 percent to the provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays.
Using such formula, the share of the provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays would be bigger than what is provided for under the current local government code.
Pimentel said proponents of federalism believe that such system of government would address the inequitable distribution of wealth, slow pace of development in the countryside, and the alarming law and order situation in Mindanao.
Pimentel also cited his father’s proposal to consolidate the existing regions into 10 states, with Metro Manila becoming a Special Administrative Region.
Luzon will have four “states” (Northern Luzon, Central Luzon, Bicol, and Southern Tagalog), while Metro Manila will be converted into a Federal Administrative Region along the lines of a Washington, New Delhi or Kuala Lumpur. With Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero