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No political amendments in the Constitution, says House panel chair

MANILA, Philippines — The House committee on constitutional amendments will tackle only “restrictive” economic provisions of the country’s basic law when it resumes its hearings on Charter change on Wednesday, its chair, Deputy Speaker Alfredo Garbin Jr., said on Sunday.

“Once somebody introduces any amendments that pertain to political provisions, it will not be entertained on the plenary because it does not have the support of the majority,” Garbin, who is Ako Bicol representative, told the Inquirer in a phone interview.

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The panel will discuss Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 filed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco in July 2019, which seeks to amend provisions that prevent foreign ownership of land and businesses in the country, and to ease restrictions on ownership and management of mass media, public utilities, educational institutions, investments and foreign capital.

In a statement on Sunday, Velasco said he was pushing for the amendments to also help in the pandemic recovery of the Philippines.

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“Foreign investment plays a crucial role in the Philippine economy by supporting domestic jobs and the creation of physical and knowledge capital across a range of industries. The need to attract foreign capital is critical to support our economy’s recovery from COVID-19,” he said.

‘Very ill-timed’

But Vice President Leni Robredo said reviving talks of Charter change in the middle of a pandemic was “very ill-timed,” especially when the government should have been discussing policy support to cushion the effects of COVID-19 to the economy.

Robredo said it was like “we haven’t learned anything from the past year [when] we had directed our energy and attention, again and again, to things that hurt Filipinos even more,” such as the shutdown of broadcasting company ABS-CBN and the passage of the antiterror law.

“Even during the first days of the pandemic, we undertook so many random initiatives that were not even remotely related to (the handling) of the pandemic,” she said in her weekly radio program on Sunday. “This is exactly why so many Filipinos are struggling right now.”

Velasco said RBH 2 “seeks to liberalize the restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution that prevent us from becoming fully competitive with our Asian neighbors.”

Lowest FDI in Asean

An economic expert on Sunday noted that the Philippines had the lowest foreign direct investment (FDI) among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which he attributed to “restrictions in the 1987 Constitution.”

“Over the 10 years ending 2018, FDI in the Philippines averaged only 1.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) every year,” said Gary Olivar, a finance professor who identified himself as a staunch advocate for the Constitutional Reform (CORE) Movement.

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“This is the lowest among Asean countries, where average FDI over the same period was nearly four times higher at 5.89 percent of GDP,” he said in a statement.

Constitutional amendments are key to opening up the country to foreign investments, Olivar said, claiming that Charter restrictions had caused western traders to look to other countries in moving their businesses from China.

Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza, a deputy speaker, dismissed as “shortsighted” Robredo’s and Taguig City Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano’s knee-jerk rejection of calls for constitutional reforms.

In a statement, Atienza said foreign ownership of many Philippine industries was still limited up to 40 percent only. “We must now relax these limits,” he said.

“We need a lot of that foreign capital to come in fast over a short period. But we must open many of our industries because there are also other countries with freer economies that want that money,” he said.

Velasco assured the public that the debates on his proposal would be “transparent and fair.”

“We hope to finish the debates before the end of 2021 and present it to the public for ratification alongside the election of new leaders in the 2022 national elections,” he said.

Garbin said holding the plebiscite simultaneously with the 2022 presidential election would be “more economical.”

Party list groups

Critics have expressed fears that such moves were meant to disguise attempts to extend term limits, while other lawmakers have insisted that Charter change aims to abolish or amend the party list system to wring the Communist Party of the Philippines dry.

President Duterte and several key officials have repeatedly accused progressive lawmakers of funneling public funds to prop up the armed rebellion.

“No need to amend the Constitution if the sole issue is some party list organizations are perceived to be supporting terrorism or espousing violence to bring down the government. The remedy lies with the Comelec (Commission on Elections),” Garbin said.

“The government can file disqualification or cancellation cases for party list organizations [that] they believed to be adjunct of terrorist organizations or promotes violence,” he added.

Garbin assured the public that only the economic provisions of the Constitution would be taken up. “We will focus on the restrictive economic provisions,” he said.

With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade and Jerome  Aning

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TAGS: Alfredo Garbin Jr., charter changer, constitutional amendments
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