President surprised at Congress Charter change planBy Cathy C. Yamsuan, Christine O. Avendaño, TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
President Benigno Aquino on Thursday said that the 6.4-percent economic growth that his administration achieved in the first quarter this year was proof enough that the Philippines could grow without altering the 1987 Constitution.
Mr. Aquino expressed concern, in spite of assurances by congressional leaders that Charter change would be limited to economic issues, that once the Constitution was opened to amendments, everything there could be subject to alterations.
Interviewed by reporters after he attended a roadshow for disaster and climate change at the SMEX Convention Center in Pasay City, the President said he was “taken aback” by statements of Speaker Jose Belmonte and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that they were confident they would be able to convince their respective chambers to agree to Constitutional amendments.
He said Charter change was not even discussed when he met recently with Enrile and Belmonte. He said their discussions had centered on the “China issue,” referring to territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Still, Mr. Aquino said he was open to listening to what Enrile and Belmonte had to say on the issue, noting that the country was a “democracy.”
“You have to listen to different ideas and come up with what’s best for our people,” he said.
Told that Belmonte and Enrile were pushing for changes in the economic provisions of the Charter, such as lifting restrictions on foreign ownership in the country, the President said he had long heard of such proposals and that he was not certain whether this was the right route for this kind of changes.
Standing by his earlier statements that the economy could grow without Charter changes, Mr. Aquino pointed out that the best proof was his administration’s achievement of a 6.4-percent growth in the first quarter at a time when other nations were not doing well.
“There is a saying among Americans … don’t fix what ain’t broke,” the President said. “Even with the present Constitution, I think we are capable of reaching economic heights for one, and changing the Constitution changes the rules of the game, which might delay the progress.”
He said discussions on Charter changes should be done “really thoroughly” to find out from those advocating it to show the basis and proof “that such a move will redound to the benefit of our people.”
The President also expressed his concern about a “theory” that “once you open the Constitution for amendments, you cannot limit (the changes), this will open it all up.”
He said for instance this would open up a debate on the best method to change the Constitution and in the event a constitutional convention was agreed on, there would be a need to vote for members there and there would be apprehensions again that work there would not be done “because who will vote themselves out of office?”
“So it’s not an easy thing to change the Constitution,” the President said.
Problem is corruption
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago told reporters on Thursday it would be better to address first the “endemic corruption” pervading the country if attracting foreign investment was the objective in amending the Constitution.
“Amendments should not be piecemeal. Normally you amend the whole thing,” Santiago said.
She noted, however, that the congressional leaders “seem to imply that the poor state of our economy is caused only by the 60-40 provision (favoring Filipino businessmen) which is not the case.”
“The thing is, we lack investors for many reasons but not the 60-40 requirement… Another reason why investors do not want (to come) here is because of better terms offered by countries in Africa and Latin America,” the senator explained.
But more than the economic provisions, Santiago said what had discouraged foreign investors more was corruption.
“Corruption also exists in other countries but not this extent. Our corruption is endemic. At every level you have to pay off somebody, so better if we centralize corruption so that payment would be made only once,” she quipped.
Santiago said foreign investors “don’t mind paying bribes but (they) mind that after paying, somebody else comes to demand and the first one (who did) does not protect (them). So not just 60-40.”
Militant groups on Thursday lambasted the fresh push for Charter change.
The peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) warned both chambers of Congress of “intensified peasant uprisings” if they pressed ahead. Lifting such restrictions on foreign capital ownership would be the “last straw against our national patrimony,” said KMP secretary general Randall Echanis.
“It is the height of irony and injustice that foreigners will be given full ownership and control over vast tracts of lands while millions of Filipino farmers remain landless. We warn Congress not to play with fire. Aquino’s Charter change will surely face the wrath of the peasantry,” he said.
“The move to tinker with the Constitution to lift restrictions on foreign ownership and investments in the Philippines is very dangerous. It is the equivalent of placing the entire domestic economy on bargain sale to foreign corporations. Land, public utilities, services … everything would now be controlled by profit-seeking firms,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.
He said Bayan would mount protests on July 23 when the President makes his annual state of the nation address.
“At a time when other economies are moving towards protectionism after the crisis wrought by neoliberalism, the Philippines is gearing towards opening up its economy even more. It does not make sense at all. Our lawmakers believe that our economic salvation lies with increased foreign investments and 100-percent foreign ownership of land, utilities and other services. This kind of economic treason should be vehemently opposed,” Reyes said.
Echanis believes the fresh pitch for Charter change by Belmonte and Enrile had the blessings of the President, because this coincided with the latter’s program to lure investors to the country.
“Amending the economic provisions of the Constitution, particularly the removal of restrictions on 100 percent foreign ownership of lands and public utilities, are clearly linked with Aquino’s program to attract foreign investments,” he said.
Echanis said amending the Constitution would not address the worsening poverty and landlessness in the country.
“Instead, the economy that was already devastated by the so-called free market globalization will continue to worsen. Charter change will hasten the full-scale liberalization, deregulation, and privatization of the economy,” Echanis said.