Time for some politics, businessmen

Commentary by Coco Alcuaz, ANC

Posted at Aug 18 2014 09:52 AM | Updated as of Aug 19 2014 05:12 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Again and again, President Aquino told the business sector and economists he didn't want to amend the foreign ownership limits in the constitution because he didn't want to “open up” the charter because some politicians might try to change political provisions.

Now, ironically, if he “opens up” the constitution to allow presidential re-election, economic amendments will move from the Speaker Belmonte highway, to an autobahn.

Unfortunately, it will also probably pave the way for lifting congressional and local government term limits. Assuming this Congress actually passes an anti-dynasty bill (another Belmonte promise), its effects will probably be offset by the removal of term limits. Worse, what if term limits are lifted and the anti-dynasty bill flounders? If the president is running for re-election, he may not have less political capital to spend on such a measure. And what if he loses the election? Has the president and his advisers have factored in that risk?

But while businessmen need to try to figure out and position for the future, they also have to, to use an old phrase we’ve read a lot this past week in Robin Williams obits: Carpe diem. Seize the day.

If the president is really running for re-election, and this is not just some gambit to stave off "lame duck-ness," this could be the business sector’s opening to get what they want from him. If his administration has been cleaner than some previous ones, it will need campaign fund donations. And while the business sector itself has few votes, it has great influence. Trade these for some action or strong pledges. Sounds like the “transactional politics” the previous government was criticized with? Sounds like politics to me.

Based on the letter local and foreign business groups sent the President before SONA, here’s their “Dirty Dozen”:

-- FOI Law
-- Agri roadmap
-- Mining taxes that will keep/make the country’s mining industry “competitive”; in other words, not the ones the government plans to propose to Congress after at least two years of work
-- Airport: a decision re: NAIA, Clark and a “third airport”
-- NLEX-SLEX connector road: Expedite the connector road projects; Metro Pacific’s would ease congestion in Manila’s port and roads
-- Shift some cargo to Batangas and Subic, which would probably require investments and incentives
-- EPIRA: “full and proper implementation,” not amendment
-- Energy roadmap
-- DOE and ERC: “Capable, proactive, visionary staff”
-- Foreign ownership restrictions: loosen
-- Customs modernization and tariff act
-- Cabinet-level anti-smuggling committee

The business community says the government is much cleaner than the previous ones, and says it's very thankful for that. But they bewail the perceived lack of planning or urgency that they think has contributed to our electricity, rail, airport, seaport and road problems.

Take the connector road project of Manuel Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific. While Ramon Ang’s San Miguel is quickly building the other connector road project, this one has been delayed by the government, in the words of Susan Roces, “not once, but twice.”

And this is the connector road that would link Manila’s ports to Skyway, bypassing Manila’s truck bans, and from there to Calabarzon, the country’s top manufacturing and export region.

The project started as an unsolicited proposal. This was approved by NEDA in January 2013, setting the stage for a Swiss Challenge, a kind of bidding meant to ensure a project isn’t overpriced. But then government-owned PNCC wanted in, saying it had the right to build such a project based on its Marcos-era charter. So Metro Pac made agreed to make it a joint venture with PNCC. Then last month, DOJ says Metro Pac can’t do that, and should revert to unsolicited proposal mode plus Swiss Challenge. In the meantime, relief for importers and exporters and the rest of us has been delayed a year and a half, and counting.

(Metro Pacific has a similar experience with SCTEX. True, it was “awarded” the SCTEX concession on June 9, 2010, just three weeks before President Arroyo stepped down, even if a final concession agreement was still being negotiated (see “The Seven Deadly Deals” by Roel Landingin, published by Newsbreak). But the Aquino administration took over the negotiations and signed in July 2011. Three years later, Metro Pac hasn’t taken over. Because the government renegotiated again, and again, then, earlier this year, after the three renegotiations, says the project needs to go through... a Swiss Challenge.)

There is a line between the government officials wanting to ensure the state gets a good, clean deal, and government officials being so paralyzed by fear of a corruption case, and lacking confidence in their negotiations, or NEDA’s vetting, that they keep renegotiating or ordering a Swiss Challenge. I’m not saying the fear is unfounded. But it’s costing us.

If the president is really running for re-election, the business sector must decide which of their “dirty dozen” and send the President a new letter, maybe privately. Because there’s just till mid- to late next year and if they ask for everything, they may get nothing till after June 30, 2016. Or, if we’re unlucky, 2022.

Coco Alcuaz is business news head at ANC. He’s @cocoalcuaz on Twitter.