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‘Primum nil nocere’

12:07 AM April 02, 2015

That means: First, do no harm.

In last week’s column I suggested that it’s not too late. President Benigno Aquino III has lost wide public support, and it could be permanent—unless he takes some positive steps that go beyond platitudes and promises. Action is what others and I have long argued for, but have not seen done.

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And he can, and should, take action—but we have to be realistic. With but a few months left to get things done it won’t be easy, particularly with the considerable loss of public support. The recent statement that the administration will focus on instilling good governance, creating jobs and fighting poverty in the next 15 months is a platitude. It’s what the administration has been saying frequently in the past 57 months, with little actual improvement in what matters most: Giving all Filipinos a decent living. There were 2.9 million Filipinos without a job in January 2011. This improved slightly to 2.7 million jobless in January 2015. There were an estimated 26 million Filipinos in poverty in 2010. There’s been negligible improvement since: 25.7 million in the first half of 2014.

So many of the things we’d all like to see done will have to wait for the next leader, and let’s hope it’s someone who will do them.

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But here’s something that the President can very realistically and sensibly do, as suggested in a private e-mail by a close friend—a fellow in the Foundation for Economic Freedom and a former senior government official—in reaction to last week’s column. I can do no better than quote him (with his permission). My comments come after.

“At this point in his term, it is unrealistic to expect P-Noy to try and get any bold reform done, like Charter change or mining liberalization or comprehensive tax reform. That is the sort of thing one does early when one has time and abundant political capital to spend. He has neither.

“Instead, the approach I would recommend is ‘Primum nil nocere (first, do no harm).’ Put a stop or moratorium to the ongoing bad policies or new bad policies a weakened President is prone to. Note the revenue-eroding populist legislation that [President Gloria Arroyo] signed into law towards the end of her term, despite the objections of her highly regarded secretary of finance.

“My candidates for stopping the harm:

“• Oppose the extension of the CARP.

“• Stop guaranteeing the NFA borrowing by the DOF and end quantitative restrictions on rice and sugar imports.

“• Restrain/revamp government-owned and -controlled corporations and regulatory agencies from continuing actions that undermine investment environment (e.g., the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System).

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“• Restrain [local government units] from actions that seriously impact on infrastructure, investments and the economy, with the same resoluteness as administrative cases against a particular Metro Manila mayor.

“• Allow working PPPs/concession agreements to continue.

“• Halt bidding/awards of midnight deals to suspicious lone qualified bidders.

“• Call for a ceasefire on military operations in Mindanao that have since post-Mamasapano led to displacement … of 100,000 plus people.”

Here are my comments to expand these eminently good suggestions:

Opening up the Constitution can be done as both chambers of Congress and almost all businessmen see its benefits. All the President needs to do is announce his support, and it’s done. Mining, though, has no chance. He has just not understood the enormous value that mining can bring to the country. It will have to wait till the next leader. As to taxes, in 15 months he can’t change the tax regime, but he can introduce the idea of radical change, and what it should be for the next administration to adopt.

On CARP, I agree. Instead, accelerate the building of farm infrastructure, provide farmers direct access to markets and to capital, and provide hybrid seeds for greater productivity while encouraging farmers to shift to higher-value crops. Raise the budget for agricultural research and development in the 2016 national budget, something the next administration should continue.

On sugar, the right but impossible thing to do is revert to plantations so efficiency is regained and tariff protection is not needed. More possible is to shift farmers to other, higher-value crops and just import sugar. Sad, but that’s what CARP has done to a crop that must have economies of scale.

The mess at MRT 3 highlights what happens if you cancel a successful contract and give it to an unknown for supposed cash gain. (See my columns “Pay your bills,” 12/11/14 and “Don’t change horses in midstream,” 11/13/14).

The MWSS needs to implement rate hikes as recommended by an arbitration panel, if they want the tremendous improvement in the service since privatization to continue. The government’s partnership with Maynilad and Manila Water is an excellent example of public-private partnership programs that have worked, and that future administrations must emulate. Consistent implementation of business policies and projects without ad hoc changes is essential if the government is to draw more participants in the PPP program.

As to LGUs, the national government must emphasize that national laws supersede myopic ordinances (e.g., the ban on open-pit mining which lost the country billions of dollars in job-generating investments, and the truck ban in Manila which severely affected the flow of goods and had severe impact on the national economy).

Mamasapano has brought to the fore how difficult reaching peaceful coexistence is going to be. My biggest concern is that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is only one faction of the Muslim population, and the others are not on board and remain at odds with the government. Nonetheless, a deal with the MILF is a good first step and should be finalized.

So there you have it—things that can be done relatively easily. It’s all up to the President.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, CARP, Constitution, DOF, Mamasapano, Manila Water, Maynilad, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, MRT-3, NFA
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