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Laws long overdue

Time is running out for President Aquino who many hope would be the one to succeed in getting Congress to pass critical laws long languishing in the legislative mill, for lack of support or political will among those supposedly tasked to uphold our best interests. With the President’s fifth State of the Nation Address (Sona) having launched the second session of the 16th Congress on Monday, many remain hopeful, but many have grown cynical as well. This comes from the prospect that our legislators’ attention, already diverted by the pork barrel scandal, will be further shifted away from legislative work by the impeachment move against the President. Besides, many already have their eyes set on the 2016 elections, though still almost two years away.

My own personal wish list of laws I’d like to see finally passed have all been pending in Congress for many years, some dating back to the 1990s or even before. These laws are crucial to addressing the much-lamented shortcomings of our development performance over the years, from the previous administration to the current one. I refer to noninclusive growth (economic growth that is narrow, shallow and hollow) and development that is unsustainable owing to neglect of its social, environmental, political, cultural and spiritual dimensions. There are four laws in particular that I’ve long argued to be crucial to attaining inclusive growth and sustainable development, and I’m counting on the 16th Congress to finally pass them, hopefully with strong prodding from the President. These are the competition law, national land use act, freedom of information act and customs modernization and tariff act.

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Critical to achieving inclusive growth is the competition law, which has remained pending in Congress for at least 20 years. We need to enshrine in law a firm policy on competition and establish an independent government body to enforce it. That income inequality has been particularly glaring in the Philippines, and had worsened over the past two decades, can be attributed in large part to growing economic concentration that lack of such law has fostered. It is also our commitment to the Asean Economic Community to enact such a law—and it’s an embarrassment that we are the only original Asean-5 member that hasn’t delivered to date. Without a law to prevent unfair trade practices, level the playing field and deliberately improve the enabling environment for small farms and firms, small economic players don’t stand a chance against large entrenched ones. Over two decades, the measure has perennially failed to see the light of day in the face of resistance from the very forces that would like to preserve, if not further their dominance, in the market and the domestic economy.

It was still under my watch as head of the National Economic and Development Authority when we first began to push for legislation of a national land use policy, and a national land use act bill was filed in 1994 in the 9th Congress. Such law would address, among other issues, conflicting or inconsistent provisions of various national laws pertaining to land use that have constantly led to confusion and tension, often turning violent. Little did we expect then that this measure would languish in the legislature for two decades. With hindsight, this was no surprise given that many landed interests who would rather have unhampered disposition over vast lands they control are themselves members of Congress, or if not, wield strong influence therein. Under this reality, it seemed to be a legislative measure doomed to fail. Still, the measure managed to reach the homestretch in the 15th Congress, only to succumb in the end to the overpowering lobby from the same forces that had traditionally resisted it. Can this President finally help swing it?

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It’s been 27 years since the first freedom of information (FOI) bill was filed, and here we again see the familiar long drawn-out struggle to have a key reform measure passed. One would expect that the President’s call for matuwid  na  daan  and professed crusade against graft and corruption stand fundamentally on the principle of transparency and accountability, hence rest crucially on the FOI law itself. But it seems that our public servants do not see their supposed “bosses” to be entitled to access to all information attendant to governance. The continuing failure to pass a Philippine FOI law defies the surge of FOI laws elsewhere in the world. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility notes how this reflects long embedded contradictions in Philippine society, including laws that are at cross-purposes with democratic values.

More recent but no less crucial is the proposed customs modernization and tariff act (CMTA), filed in 2008 under the 15th Congress inasmuch as the 1978 Tariff and Customs Code is no longer responsive to the present demands of trade and commerce. The bill would align us with global customs administration standards and update our tariff laws. But modernization, particularly computerization in revenue agencies, has its natural enemies in those who have profited from antiquated manual procedures that leave much discretion to collection officers. CMTA will thus reduce the costs of doing business that modernized customs processes would bring about; small and medium enterprises should be particularly benefited by easier access to imported inputs. CMTA would thus be instrumental to inclusive growth and strengthened Philippine competitiveness.

I join many in the hope that this 16th Congress would finally deliver on these laws that are long overdue indeed.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: 16th Congress, Asean Economic Community, Benigno Aquino III, President Aquino, Sona, Sona 2014, State of the Nation Address
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