The sin tax bill, the reproductive health bill, the “enforced disappearances” bill—as far as substantive, high-impact legislation goes, 2012 will go down as a banner year for Congress and the administration of President Aquino. It’s quite an annus mirabilis, too, for a country long starved for laws and regulations that have the potential to truly change the game. Too many Congresses have come and gone with not one meaningful piece of work to remember them by. But now, practically in one blow, the Philippines has been presented with three new laws that advance the cause of progressive politics and, not incidentally, kindle the hope that this time, the country may indeed be on its way to a more modern, enlightened era of governance and civic order.
The President has said many times that his campaign for reforms isn’t premised on cleaning house only for the moment, but on creating an environment for systemic changes that would prove irreversible in force and effect. This is to ensure that whatever gains his administration notches up, from reducing corruption in government to pumping more blood into the economy, will be sustained and institutionalized for the long term. The passage of good laws with far-reaching impact will certainly help deliver on this promise, and credit must be given Malacañang for the assiduous way it worked on having the bills go through the legislative wringer—subjected to everything from endless dilatory tactics to ridiculous antics by the likes of Sen. Tito Sotto, in the case of the RH bill—with their fundamental strengths left intact in the end. Congress, too, can be proud of its work in 2012; along with the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, the new laws it passed represent an unusually productive year for it.
However, that momentum and sense of reform would be wasted if Malacañang and Congress decide to slacken up at this time. While the trifecta of enlightened new statutes do constitute new ground gained for the country, they are not enough. Another, and possibly far more important, bill deserves to be given attention and consideration—by the House of Representatives where it has been all but becalmed, and by the Aquino administration which needs to certify it as urgent, the same way it did for the RH legislation.
The freedom of information bill has already gotten the nod of the Senate—even if its version carries the unfortunately juvenile title of “People’s Ownership of Government Information,” or Pogi, bill—but at the House, it has hurdled only the committee on public information, and is yet to reach the plenary. Congress has precious few session days left; it resumes session on Jan. 21 and breaks on Feb. 8 for the 3-month election campaign period. Sen. Loren Legarda, who cosponsored the bill in the Senate, has called on Mr. Aquino to certify the bill as urgent, to “send a clear message to our fellow legislators that the President considers the measure a vital tool for effective governance… We must give the people something that they can hold on to.”
Mr. Aquino, who has hemmed and hawed on the bill because of some newfound apprehension that it would be open to abuse, must be held to his promise—made during his own presidential campaign—to pass the bill to allow for greater transparency and honesty in government. That happens to be the most crucial part of his much-touted anticorruption drive—not just the removal of rotten officials, or the streamlining of bureaucratic processes, or his vow to lead by clean example.
The freedom of information bill will guarantee the citizenry access to the ways and means by which the government that governs in their name, and with their hard-earned taxes, does its work. If Mr. Aquino is serious not just about eliminating corruption, but also about laying the groundwork for the kind of cleaner, more honest governance that his successors would eventually be in no position to undo, then he must formally empower the public to do its part as guardians of the public till with the FOI bill.
He has done well with three new good laws under his watch. The FOI bill, if passed, will be the crowning achievement of the most productive phase yet of his presidency. More importantly, it will mark the Philippines’ biggest break from its old, rotten ways. This much is clear: Without some form of express, legislated power on the part of the people to look into government affairs, the old order will go on, and Mr. Aquino’s legacy as a reformist leader will all be for naught.
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