Can we expect action?
We promised last week to discuss the 15 doable recommendations that the business sector would like President Aquino to pay attention to in his remaining months. Of the 15, something has happened regarding three, but that something isn’t too impressive:
In the first, he had to fill the vacant leadership positions in four agencies, but only two have been filled. Reassuringly, though, he appointed competent people to the Commission on Elections and the Commission on Audit. But the top posts at the Philippine National Police and the Civil Service Commission are yet unfilled despite the need being long-known and, in the PNP case, urgent.
The second was to execute major reforms in the tax system. The finance secretary has suggested quite major tax reforms (see “A tax revolution,” 4/16/15), but they are still in the early conceptual stage.
A third was done, but wasn’t done, and that’s the reduction of the Foreign Investment Negative List to a minimum. There really should be none at all, as foreigners are not going to take jobs away from Filipinos. But instead of reducing, or even eliminating, the list, Mr. Aquino approved a new list that continues almost all the restrictions of previous lists. It was an action that was a nonaction.
The rest are yet to do, and let’s hope with better accomplishment than the first three. They are:
- Creation of a public-private energy council composed of credible experts who will draft an energy security and price competitiveness roadmap with specific targets and deadlines.
- Implementation of measures to increase the productivity of farmers and fishers, who are still the lowest-paid workers in the country (a meager P160-P180 daily). Of the 30 bills endorsed by the President to the House immediately after his State of the Nation Address (Sona) last year, not a single measure was dedicated to improving the competitiveness of the agricultural and fisheries sectors, where 30 percent of the workers are.
- Streamlining of the business registration process which currently still takes 16 procedures and 34 days. The government has promised to bring this down to six procedures and eight days—still too many, but better.
- Release of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the Data Privacy Act and the Cybercrime Prevention Act. The IRR of both laws have yet to be issued three years after they were signed into law despite their obvious importance.
- Immediate and intensified construction of vital infrastructure projects. The first-quarter drop in spending has to be reversed. The slow, laborious processes of government have to be prodded into fast action by an uncompromising president.
- Speedy resolution of the Maguindanao massacre trial and the plunder cases filed against the three senators in the pork barrel scam. This move needs action by the judiciary. There is no action, only unacceptable excuses. May I remind the judiciary that 58 innocent, ordinary people like us were mercilessly murdered in the worst such incident in Philippine history. All that is happening is the witnesses are dying.
The others require Congress to act, but need the President’s active support if they are to be concluded in his term. Yet he has certified only three of the five as priority. These three are:
- Approval of the freedom of information bill, which has been pending in Congress for more than two decades. The President promised this as a major issue in his campaign but it’s still in discussion in Congress.
- Passage of the Build-Operate-Transfer Law amendments, which will improve the conditions for doing public-private partnership projects.
- Approval of the antitrust/fair competition bill. The measure has been approved on third and final reading in both chambers of Congress so it is likely to be signed into law before June 2016.
The following are not among the President’s priority bills:
- Passage of the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, which adopts customs policies and procedures that are in line with global standards for customs services.
- Establishment of a Department of ICT. The bill has been passed on third and final reading in the Senate but the House version is still pending on first reading. Yet this is the most important change needed for the country’s future success in this rapidly expanding IT world. Mr. Aquino’s imprimatur will accelerate its passage through Congress, but has not been forthcoming.
- Enactment of Speaker Sonny Belmonte’s resolution for the amendment of the economic restrictions in the Constitution to encourage more foreign investment and make the Philippines more competitive on the world stage and eligible for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This is one of the most important bills for transforming society and the economy. As I mentioned last week, the absence of Mr. Aquino’s support led to it not getting sufficient votes in the House. So unless he has a last-minute change of heart, he will leave office not having instituted a measure that would have captured world attention and brought foreign investors to the Philippines. With investors still not coming, the Philippines remains at the bottom of the pile in Asean.
So there you have it—a business community still united in a desire to see action that will strengthen the Philippines’ position in the world, improve the economy and create jobs. These are presented from the perspective of those on the ground who daily experience the weaknesses and so know, in practical terms, what is needed. But the President has not accepted business’ suggestions in the past, and there is little indication that he will now. The July 27 Sona will determine if, in his remaining year, he will act to leave a legacy of achievement for business growth.