MANILA - It was a battle on economic policies when presidential candidates Senator Grace Poe and former Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas spoke before business executives and alumni of American business schools Wednesday evening.
Poe, an independent candidate, acknowledged during the "Meet Your Candidates" forum held at the Manila Polo Club that President Benigno Aquino III has done "quite a bit" for the Philippines.
"What we badly needed before 2010 was a leader that we could look up to, that we could trust, who was honest, who would not steal from us, and the President delivered that," she said, acknowledging also the country's economic gains under the leadership of Aquino.
She, however, said much still needs to be done as many remain unemployed and underemployed, and there is still high incidence of poverty in the country.
"What has he not done? Well, he said so himself: inclusive growth."
Poe, who was made to present first because Roxas was late for the event, said in her speech that she believes she has the ability to take the country to the path of inclusive growth.
This, despite the criticisms she has been receiving for her supposed lack of experience, having only served as senator for nearly three years so far.
"That may well be the case, but to you I ask: Is there any evidence from our history that shows that long years in public service automatically translate to good governance and effective economic policies?"
Some people from the audience then quickly answered "yes" but Poe rebutted: "Not necessarily."
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'NO MAGIC WAND'
Roxas, in his speech shortly after the question and answer portion for Poe, similarly pointed out that the Philippines, which used to be the "sick man of Asia" is now "Asia's bright star."
He, however, did not mention the issue of inclusive growth.
"That's where we are today. We're not saying it's perfect. We're not saying we have attained first world status. But what we are saying is we are certain we are much better off than where we were when we first took over in 2010," said Roxas, who was met with applause as he went on stage.
"And by we, I don't mean PNoy or Mar or the LP (Liberal Party). I mean all of us. Because that story of the last five years is our common story," he added.
The administration standard-bearer stressed that none of the country's gains happened by mere chance. "This did not happen bara-bara, pa-tsamba or suntok sa buwan. This did not happen by a magic wand and certainly this did not happen by simply saying, 'wish ko lang,'" he said.
Promising truthful and faithful governance, Roxas then questioned the audience if they would like to continue on with the leadership that has already been tested or venture into another path still unknown.
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"Do we continue with our hard work? We've already taken off, we've already reached substantial progress, and what do we do now?"
Poe, for her part, admitted that experience in governance is valuable.
But there are more important qualities a leader should possess, she said, "such as integrity, the ability to choose people wisely and the courage to make decisions on the basis of principles... no matter who gets hurt."
The first-term senator also said there are "tremendous" advantages to being a newcomer in Malacañang, if and when she is elected president next year.
For one, she will not have to carry any "baggage" and will not have to protect any ally, subordinate or pet project.
"Indeed, I can bypass the traditional rituals and practices that bind the experienced politicians, appoint the best people outside the usual circles and propose fresh ideas," she said.
These, she can do without worrying whose toes will be stepped on, added Poe.
WHO'S THE GOOD MANAGER
According to Poe, merit, and not friendship, will be her criterion in choosing cabinet secretaries.
She said they should be held responsible for what they are supposed to deliver, unlike the case now "where no one wants to be held accountable for the suffering and inconvenience the public has to bear due to inaction," citing the monstrous traffic in Metro Manila, the "tanim-bala" scam at the airports, and the failure in disaster relief operations.
"Whereas, everyone wants the credit for where there have been triumphs," she said, "to the point that the President... has to go out of his way to deal with the inadequacies of some of his men."
During the question and answer portion of the forum, Poe, who chairs the Senate committee on public services, was asked if she thinks Roxas has been a good manager. Roxas, before taking the DILG portfolio, used to head the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).
Poe declined to provide a direct answer but said she thinks more could have been done.
"I think that our people deserve better and I think that it's really a matter of vision, planning and execution and leadership. It could have spelled the difference," she said.
The former interior secretary, for his part, said he did everything he could during his time as secretary of the DOTC and the DILG.
"I'm confident that we did all that we could do given what we could do at that time," he said, pertaining to the issues hounding the Metro Rail Transit (MRT-3).
He blamed the current maintenance contract, which, he stressed, was anomalous and "started out in original sin." If he wins the presidential race next year, he said he will abrogate the contract.
"Isa yan sa mga tututukan natin dahil hindi tama na nagbibigay tayo ng ganung kalaking halaga sa isang serbisyo na hindi naman napapakinangabangan ng tao," he said in an ambush interview with reporters after the event. Roxas stayed behind after the forum while Poe immediately left after her time on stage.
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As for his stint as DILG chief, Roxas noted that with the Philippine National Police's (PNP) Oplan Lambat Simbat, the number of general crime incidents in Metro Manila has gone down from 918 a week to 350.
"Is it glamorous? No. Does it make headlines? No. But there's 500 people every week that are no longer victims of crime."
ON CHARTER CHANGE, INCOME TAX REFORM
Meanwhile, the two presidential candidates were also asked about whether they are open to amending the economic provisions of the Constitution.
Poe said she wants to reduce restrictions on foreign investments to democratize economic opportunities. At present, the Constitution limits foreign ownership on certain businesses and industries.
But she also stressed the need to ensure that mechanisms are in place so that the changes will not cross over to democratic political safeguards.
She said she has assembled a council of economic advisers composed of people from the academe and business sectors. Among Poe's economic advisers are Dean Antonio La Viña, Cielito Habito, Romeo Bernardo and Raul Fabella.
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The senator also advocated lowering corporate income taxes. "To be competitive, it must be enticing for these companies to invest in our country," she said.
Roxas, for his part, said economic reform through charter change is possible in his leadership. He, however, stressed that the Constitution's economic provisions is not the main problem, but the harassment at the Bureau of Customs (BOC), Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), Bureau of Immigration (BI), airports, and local government units (LGUs).
"The people are not investing because of the instability in the rules of the game," said Roxas, who also served as secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
"That's not our stumbling block. I think we need to address what the real problems are," he added. "Let's imagine we change [the Constitution]. The problems of harassment are still there... the problems of corruption at BIR, Customs, Immigration are still there."
The LP standard-bearer said he is open to income tax reform, but does not want to discuss much about the issue during the elections season, saying it will just "become very, very politicized, it becomes pa-pogihan."
He nonetheless noted that when he was senator in 2004, he passed a law exempting minimum wage earners from paying income taxes.
"I've actually done something about it," he said. "I believe the money earned by the people first should be in their pockets, secondarily to help their government."
Roxas, meanwhile, seemed to differ with Aquino on the topic of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) along with US and Australia, among others.
The President last week reiterated the Philippines's desire to join the TPP, saying the country's inclusion will give the Philippines "access to a far larger market."
According to Roxas, the country must be careful in joining the TPP.
"TPP are trade agreements. Essentially, they provide market access to the other countries to our market, which is okay lang because we will also have access to their markets," he explained.
"Except in agriculture. In agriculture, they have subsidies to their farmers, and our farmers cannot compete. You will wipe out a sector comprising one third of our population if you just mindlessly enter TPP."
PH CASE VS CHINA
Poe, meanwhile, was asked about the Philippines' ties with China amid its dispute over the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea.
Poe said the Philippines should continue with its arbitration case against China, strengthen its military and coast guard, and also engage other ASEAN countries for a constructive dialogue.
"China has been a long time trade partner of the Philippines. We have other relations with China that go beyond political -- economic, education ties, cultural ties. And I believe in pursuing these ties with China, we can help each other,” she added.
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Meanwhile, the senator was also asked about the recent statement of another presidential hopeful, Vice President Jejomar Binay, that she should be disqualified both as a senator and a presidential candidate next year because she is not a natural-born Filipino.
The Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) earlier ruled 5-4 to dismiss a quo warranto case questioning Poe's natural-born status, which is a requirement for candidates seeking the posts of representative, senator, vice president and president.
"Merong batas eh. Kailangan masunod ang batas eh, natural-born. Pero ha, hindi siya inaalisan ng pagka-Pilipino. Hindi naman. Kinikilala siya na siya ay Pilipino. Hindi nga lamang siya natural-born. That makes her disqualified to run for president," Binay said in an exclusive interview on radio DZMM's presidential forum "Ikaw Na Ba? Para Sa Pamilyang Pilipino" on Wednesday afternoon.
"It is a constitutional provision. Kaya lang ito naungkat e dahil siya ang ina-apply-an niya ay requirement ‘yun. Hindi naman issue sa foundling ‘yun. Hindi naman pwedeng hanapan ka ng natural-born para ikaw ay maging doktor," he added.
Binay, as well as Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, were also invited to the "Meet Your Candidates" forum. The three, however, declined the invitation.
The program is a special forum produced by ANC in partnership with the Harvard Club of the Philippines, Kellogg School of Management and Wharton-Penn Alumni Associations.
"That's his opinion," Poe said of Binay's statements. "Of course, it would be very convenient for him if I'm disqualified," she added, to the applause of the audience.
If she is disqualified, she said she will respect the rule of law. But she said she will continue to fight for foundlings like her.
"Ang isang batang inabandona ng kaniyang mga magulang ay di rin dapat iabandona ng ating pamahalaan... I think that is also sad that a child abandoned should be compelled to present who his parents are. Every child found in this country should have a right to dream," she said.
In an ambush interview, Roxas, for his part, said his camp was not aware of the senator's citizenship issues when they were courting her to be his running mate in the 2016 elections.
But he said: "Palagay ko lahat naman tayo ay nagnanais na kung sino man ang umupo sa pagiging pangulo ay Pilipino, to the bones na Pilipino."