CALLS for “Charter change” are so predictably a part of the political activity in the months following the installation of a new president in the Philippines that you could set your watch to them, so it would have been more of a surprise if the current class in Congress had not proposed tackling the process of amending the 1987 Constitution. However, the current effort is more worrisome than those in past years because of the intensely aggressive way it is being pushed by a legislature that, with precious few exceptions, is populated by “lawmakers” who are quickly becoming historically outstanding for their lack of competence and intellectual depth.
It is one thing to be kind of stupid; it is quite another to be arrogantly proud of being stupid, and to consider it one’s mission to manifest that in national policy and laws. Think that’s harsh? Consider the response of Cavite Rep. Elpidio “Pidi” Barzaga Jr. when asked for his reaction to a joint statement by six major business groups opposing Charter change. “Eh, ano ngayon (What of it)?” Barzaga was reported to have said. Pidi should probably thank the media for not actually reporting that and making him look bad, and instead publishing his slightly more respectful follow-up statement that “the members of Congress, being the representatives of our constituents, are in a position that the restrictive economic provisions that were first incorporated in the 1935 Constitution and carried over into the 1973 and 1987 Constitutions should already be amended in order to spur the economic development of our country.”
No one believes that is the real motive, of course, as time and again public surveys have shown that, for better or worse, an overwhelming majority of the public as constituents do not want their representatives to be wasting their time and money on amending the Constitution. As far as I know, a survey on the current Charter change initiative has not been published yet, but I would expect to see one in the coming days, and I would bet real money that its results will not differ significantly from any one done in the past.
The opposition of the business sector is a change from past Charter change efforts. In the past, business had largely been supportive of the idea, at least of the disingenuous stated purpose to “amend restrictive economic provisions,” but that old canard doesn’t seem to hold any water this time around. The reason why it doesn’t is perfectly sensible, and was highlighted in the statement by the six business groups, which included the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, Makati Business Club, Women’s Business Council Philippines, Filipina CEO Circle, Philippine Women’s Economic Network, and Justice Reform Initiative.
There are indeed “restrictive economic provisions” in the Constitution, and they probably should not be there, but the country has adapted over time to overcome most of the obstacles those actually pose. For almost every “restrictive provision” there are one or more legal exceptions or workarounds, and some others are simply ignored by common assent. For example, the constitutional proscription against nuclear energy is currently being ignored, and in a formal, institutional way, as the pursuit of nuclear power has become part of the country’s official energy policy. In the past couple of years, measures such as the Public Service Act, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, the Foreign Investment Act, the Rice Trade Liberalization Act, and regulations like the Department of Energy (DoE) circular allowing 100 percent foreign ownership in the renewable energy sector, have further eroded the constitutional restrictions, and these have been supplemented by other measures such as the Anti-Red Tape Act and tax reforms to further encourage investment.
The argument that “restrictive economic provisions” in the Constitution are keeping foreign investment away is a complete fallacy, and the people who are best qualified to make that determination have said so. That the leaders of the Charter change charge — mainly House Speaker Martin Romualdez and Representative Barzaga in the House, and B-movie actor Robin Padilla in the Senate — are not only ignoring the expert views, but are being arrogantly dismissive of them (What of it?) indicates one of two things, neither of them good. The best case scenario is that the so-called solons are applying the same enthusiastic lack of discipline and multi-step thought to Charter change as they did the proposed sovereign investment fund — the fire, aim, ready approach, as my friend Stephen CuUnjieng would put it. The other possibility is just what most people fear, and express in their consistent rejection of Charter change in the surveys, that the drivers of the Charter change initiative have ulterior motives to entrench themselves in power.
No constitution should be forever immutable, and there are likely a great many things about this country’s Constitution that should or could be amended. But as the Constitution is intended as the fundamental law of the land, making those changes should be as rigorous a process as possible, and not treated as an extracurricular activity at clown school. A good place to start would be to provide, as Sen. Francis Escudero has requested, a comprehensive explanation of the specific changes proposed, and why these are necessary. I would keep the anticipation of hearing that to a minimum. Even if the current proponents of Charter change felt at all obliged to provide that explanation — and everything they have said about Charter change so far indicates that they do not — nothing they have said or done so far suggests that they actually have the capacity to do so.
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