Big businesses have been a hot topic in the country for months already, with President Rodrigo Duterte staunch in putting his foot down, refusing to be swayed by big money and negative publicity. One by one, the President has toppled what seemed to be unshakeable corporations with billions in their war chest, ready to be spent for lobbying to further their intent to profit, veiled as their supposed noble causes and advocacies.
In the House of Representatives, there is more chatter than the Senate, albeit not thoroughly covered by the media. Of course, this can be attributed to the 300-plus House Members present, all representing distinct constituents and sectors, as opposed to 24 Senators who were all nationally elected, mini-versions of the President and Vice President, serving no single true area or sector of constituents. This being so, one can say that democracy is felt more in the august halls of the House of Representatives, where every corner you hear a different dialect, tune or whisper, with every room in the complex representing a specific constituency in the Republic of the Philippines.
It is amusing that one can discuss the ABS-CBN franchise at length in the halls of the Batasan Complex without talking about it all during the several hearings that happen throughout the day. The House Committee on Franchise, chaired by Rep. Franz Alvarez of Palawan, has not commenced to hear the bills extending the franchise which expires on 30 March, under the directive of House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who acts pursuant to the will of the President. In his recent Facebook post on this issue, Speaker Cayetano said that there are more important and urgent bills to be heard.
True enough, the bill updating the 84-year-old Public Service Act was passed after weeks of plenary discussion, on Second Reading last Tuesday. House Bill (HB) 78 was passed after much scrutiny by the Makabayan Bloc lawmakers, but slipped through the cracks of media since they were too busy dwelling the ABS-CBN franchise. Now that it has been passed without much fanfare, its passage is criticized by netizens who fail to understand the importance of this bill.
By amending the Public Service Act, we effectively achieve an amendment of the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution without actually amending it. The 1987 Constitution, in Art. XII, Section 11, states that “(n)o franchise, certificate, or any form of authorization for the operation of a public utility shall be granted except to citizens of the Philippines or to corporations or associations organized under the laws of the Philippines at least 60 per centum of whose capital is owned by such citizens xxx…” Note that the 1987 Constitution did not define what a ‘public utility’ is — this is left to the discretion of Congress.
HB 78 delineates what is a ‘public utility’ to be subject of the 60/40 requirement in the 1987 Constitution, as well as what is a ‘public service’ that is not subject to said requirement and, therefore, can be fully owned by foreigners. In defining ‘public service,’ HB 78 provides that this includes “common carrier, railroad, street railway, subway motor vehicle, ice refrigeration plant, irrigation system, marine railways, wire or wireless communications systems; wire or wireless broadcasting stations; freight or carrier services, steam boats ferries and war craft engaged in the transportation of passengers or freight, gas, electric light, heat and power water supply and power, petroleum and sewerage system, among others.” The intent of this is to unleash the full economic potential of the Philippines by bringing in foreign investments legally.
Incidentally, at nearly the same time this is being heard, the new House Committee on Flagship Projects held its first hearing which featured Presidential Adviser on Flagship Projects, Secretary Vince Dizon, fresh from a successful stint at the SEA Games. Dizon presented the status of the ongoing “Build, Build, Build” projects and a list of an updated big-ticket legacy projects that will be started within the term of President Duterte, but finished beyond it. The list included the Panay-Guimaras-Negros Bridge (ODA-Chinese), Metro Manila Subway (ODA-Japanese), North-South Commuter Railway (JICA, ADB) and Mindanao Railway (ODA-China) among the big-ticket legacy projects.
As can be read, these projects rely on foreign funding already. One may ask, what difference will the amendment of the Public Service Act make when infrastructure projects are already being subjected to investments from foreign sources? Another question is whether the President will be tough enough to question foreign corporations that fund huge projects in the Philippines, the same way we can bully around domestic corporations.
The tough policy questions are dependent on our nationally elected politicians, thus exemplifying the importance of voting the right people into office. Then again, we can just put our trust in the current set of leaders, and pour support in the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments for it to pass its bill extending the terms of elected officials. It’s all a delicate balancing act that each citizen has to play.
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