Don’t lose the window

Congress has before it 10 bills that I think must pass into law before sessions end in June next year if the Philippines is to truly progress. They are laws that this country needs if it is to break out of the morass of the past 40 years (or since martial law began a rot that has left the Philippines at the bottom of the Asean heap).

I’m going to give you just the bare bones of each one, and why they must pass. Lengthy discussion has been done elsewhere by others and myself.

Reproductive health bill. This is a constitutionally mandated secular society. People have a right to information and the opportunity to make informed choices. The Church can dictate to its flock; it can’t force its views on the state. Some 70 percent of Filipinos want family planning (reliable surveys), and the state is obliged to provide it. Studies have shown that economies grow faster in countries with slow population growth.

“Sin” taxes. Cigarettes kill, alcohol impairs the body. They can’t—and in an open, free-market democracy shouldn’t—be banned, but their consumption can be reduced. World experience has shown high pricing is the best method. High prices can deter the youth from starting and others from smoking so much. Hospitals need the subsidy to health. This is a health issue. The extra revenues to government will be a bonus. Tobacco farmers are protected, it hurts no one, benefits many.

A Department of Information and Communications Technology. President Aquino is right, we have too many government departments. But a DICT is imperative. Already, we’re the world’s No. 1 in call centers, and we can be much else in IT, too. Government needs to be fully computerized in an integrated way that only a dedicated department can do. You can’t bribe a computer. IT will be the biggest sector in the Philippine economy, or it can be if it is powerfully managed (by a department). It needs that focused, high-level attention, and budget.

Anti-Cybercrime bill. This is an urgent essential. Existing laws are inadequate to protect individuals and businesses from cybercrime. With computers, cell phones, etc., an ever increasing part of our lives needs protection from computer-facilitated crimes including data theft, online fraud, hacking, and introduction of viruses and computer sabotage.

Data Privacy bill. This goes hand in hand with the Anti-Cybercrime bill. And as our lives get ever more computerized, a national ID is inevitable, and desirable. Regulations relating to the collection, use and protection of an individual’s personal data in information and communications systems are essential. This bill, along with the DICT and Anti-Cybercrime bills, will enhance the competitiveness of the local business process outsourcing industry. It will protect consumers and promote trust and user confidence in electronic commerce.

Anti-Trust Act. This will promote a level playing field in trade and all commercial economic activities, and rid the country of abusive monopolies, cartels and anticompetitive behavior. The Department of Justice is currently the country’s competition authority, but promoting a level playing field should be a responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, assisted by the DOJ. The DOJ can’t be expected to understand the complexities of commercial endeavors.

Mining taxes. Mining can bring great wealth to the Philippines as it has to Australia, Canada, Brazil, etc., and also the Middle East (oil is a mined product). But Executive Order 79 has thrown a spanner in the works. There’ll be no further investment in mining until potential investors know how much tax they’ll pay. A fair sharing of income is fine, but it must be that: sharing the net proceeds. To tax on gross revenues, as an excise tax does, is grossly unfair. It means penalizing you whether you make a profit or loss. The Church should support responsible mining by monitoring the activities of mines, and reporting abuse. It should not try to ban something we must all (including the Church) have.

Anti-Smuggling Act. Given the horror stories of the immense smuggling that occurs, the need for this is blindingly obvious—unless, of course, you are among the ones doing it. At least an estimated P100 billion is lost annually due to smuggling.

Rationalization of Fiscal Incentives. The aim is not to maximize revenues to government but to draw investment away from other countries. All the other Asean countries give income tax holidays; it will be foolish of the Philippines not to. The little that the Philippines now gets will become even less. But many of the restrictions in the bill need to be removed; simplify, not complicate. The Philippine economy gains far more with high levels of foreign investment than it ever loses in the form of taxes foregone for a few years.

Freedom of Information Bill. The President promised it in his campaign; he must honor his promises, particularly as the past administration showed us the scandalous excesses you could get into if you hid what you were doing from the public. Government service is a public trust, and the public can only trust you if it knows what you are doing. The FOI bill has been languishing in Congress since 1992. If you are acting honestly, you have nothing to hide.

Finally, there’s Charter change. I discussed this last week. It will do wonders for the country if the economy were fully opened up. It will send a message that goes beyond the creation of a more open economy. It says this is a country that welcomes business and wants everyone to have equal opportunity in it.

On all the above, three little words: No, not the three that lead to population growth, desirable as those words are, but LET’S DO IT.