The cost of Cha-Cha

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

The Charter Change (Cha-Cha) discourse always seems to accept three presumptions. First, that proponents know what they are talking about. This really boggles the mind because almost always, the proponents show the opposite. Keep in mind as well that close to 80% of the population know very little about the 1987 Constitution.

Second, that we concede proponents have the best interest of the country in mind. This is also profoundly baffling given the fact that it is so easy for proponents to exclude the public from deliberations about their proposals. And even worse, they are also always so eager to railroad the entire amendment process.

Lastly, that the cost of Cha-Cha is not important enough to be part of the discussion. The proponents tend to glorify the purported “benefits”, but they never tell us the huge bill taxpayers must pay. Almost like they want to hide the fact that change does not come cheap.

Consequently, it is in our best interest to see Cha-Cha with our eyes wide open. We need to go past the flowery promises of its proponents. Indeed, the decision to amend or change the 1987 Constitution must be anchored on the confluence of two briefs.

First, a determination of defective provisions, which must necessarily also include a discussion on their adverse impact on politics and governance in the country. Second, a coherent explanation of the proposed amendment or change and how they can lead to an improvement from the untenable status quo.

So apart from engaging in meaningful public deliberations, amending or revising the constitution requires deep and far-reaching discernment from all of us. This means we have to study the text of the 1987 Constitution and reflect on how it has been applied in the past 36 years. This is not an easy task, but we must do it otherwise the constitutional reform process can be hijacked by predatory politicians pretending to be reformers.

Let us briefly tackle the proposal to amend the restrictive economic provisions of the constitution. The core selling point here is the promise that economic liberalization will bring in a torrent of foreign direct investments (FDI).

Curiously, in a letter submitted to the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments during the previous administration’s Cha-Cha attempt, the Makati Business Club cited three major impediments to FDI growth in the Philippines: “(1) the perception of high levels of corruption in government; (2) restrictive foreign ownership rules; and (3) uncompetitive labor compliance costs.”

Obviously, simply removing foreign ownership restrictions would not bring in more FDI to the country because the other two obstacles must be addressed as well. Verily, opening industries to foreign ownership without the accompanying governance and labor reforms will probably only result to modest, if not minimal, growth in FDI levels.

Nevertheless, economic liberalization can still offer positive outcomes for many Filipinos. Consider removing for instance, foreign ownership restriction on secular educational institutions (See Article XIV, Section 4 (2)). It then becomes plausible to imagine a learning institution such as Newcastle University establishing a campus in Naga, Bacolod or Marawi, in addition to their campuses in Malaysia and Singapore.

And while investors in the field of education may not bring spectacular numbers in terms of FDI, if the scenario painted here does eventuate, a whole range of economic opportunities immediately becomes available to Filipinos in these areas. Moreover, having world-class universities in regions outside of Metro Manila satisfies the constitutional right of all citizens to access quality education.

It is important to remember though that whilst economic liberalization is a truly worthy pursuit, it does not automatically mean the absence of government regulation. The intervention of the state in open sectors is still necessary to ensure trade practices are fair and just, consumer rights are protected and our national patrimony is preserved. The welfare of the community must still be the priority over and above everything else.

In sum, we must never ever forget, that we will be sacrificing so much more than just our time and effort if indeed Cha-Cha pushes through. As taxpayers, we are also slated to shell out 13 billion Php to cover the expenses for a plebiscite. Note that this amount is pegged for just one plebiscite for this year. The cost can jump exponentially if the proponents of the dubious people’s initiative get their way.

And so, we must also consider whether the promised economic gain of Cha-Cha is even worth it, given the significant hit on the national coffers. Hence, it is incumbent upon the proponents of Economic Cha-Cha, such as Senate President Miguel Zubiri and Speaker Martin Romualdez, to present proof that this substantial monetary sacrifice is actually a sound investment that will benefit succeeding generations of Filipinos.

Indeed, the phrase, “Huwag magpa-budol!”, comes to mind.