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FIRST PERSON – Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) – January 14, 2021 – 12:00am

The leaders of several parties and blocs met last Tuesday to endorse the proposed changes in the 1987 Constitution by means of a constituent assembly. That is a hopeful sign this effort could progress much better than all the previous attempts at constitutional reform.

Buhay PL Rep. Lito Atienza could be taken as another barometer of how the attitude towards Charter change might be changing this time around.

Over the past two decades, Atienza staunchly opposed both the alteration of the restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution and the use of the constituent assembly as the means to get the reforms done. This time around, he supports both the change in the restrictive economic provisions as well as the constituent assembly to win these changes as quickly as possible.

The Charter change effort led by House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco seeks to get the changes done and submitted to a referendum coinciding with the 2022 elections. That might seem a short timetable. It is certainly too short if the preferred means is a constitutional convention.

The last time we convened a constitutional convention, the deliberations went on for years and were eventually overtaken by the imposition of martial rule. Eventually, then president Ferdinand Marcos wrote the Charter himself. The 1973 Constitution served to legitimize the authoritarian order he had imposed.

The House Charter change initiative commits to limit the scope of amendments to the economic provisions. Nearly every administration since Fidel Ramos’ attempted to make this change only to be frustrated by the conservatives and nationalists.

Although he once resisted liberalizing the economic provision, Atienza now understands these have caused us more harm than good.

Economic protectionism is an old and discredited framework. The protectionist provisions in the 1987 Constitution reflect a 19th century ideology.

In our case, the protectionist measures constituted a negative list for investments in our economy. This is a main reason why the Philippines has been receiving the smallest share of investment flows into the core ASEAN economies. If we had been receiving our appropriate share of investments, our economic growth would have been more dynamic and our poverty rate only a fraction of what it is now.

In a word, these protectionist provisions harm only us.

The negative list forced us to endure substandard telecommunications facilities. Despite recent improvements, our internet speed is still comparably laughable. This restricts our ability to do online learning for our young and attract technology industry to our shores.

The prohibition on foreign ownership of media is even more laughable in this age of borderless communication. This archaic prohibition prevents us from competing in cultural production. This is why there is K-Pop but no F-pop.

A few years ago, a Nordic company looked at the possibility of building television production facilities here to create children’s content for all of Asia. That investment, were it not unconstitutional, would have created good paying jobs for our abundant broadcast productions talents – including actors, directors and line producers.

The prohibition on foreign ownership of land stymied our ability to improve on our agricultural production by preventing investments in agro-industry. This hampered the capitalization of our agriculture and the development of our farm logistics. As a result, it limited our ability to ensure food security for our people and penalized our poor with expensive food commodities.

Some years ago, a major US car producer looked at the possibility the country could host a billion-dollar investment in plant capacity to serve the ASEAN region. The ban on land ownership made the construction of a billion-dollar plant untenable. As a result, the company chose to locate in Thailand.

Each day the protectionist provisions stay in the Constitution, the Filipino people endure costs. We could have developed our power production to deliver cheaper energy to our people, built more infrastructure to improve our transport and linked our island economies more efficiently.

For instance, because of protectionist measures, our domestic shipping remains among the most inefficient in the world. It costs less to transport goods from Thailand to Manila than from Davao to Manila. The costs of inefficiency are borne by our consumers every day.

The same protectionist provisions hindered our ability to expand our trade relations. This is another telling handicap on our economic growth. We have been prevented from becoming a trading economy, a disability that inhibits the growth of our manufacturing sector as well.

We could go on and on with a thousand other examples. But the point is clear. This is why the Foundation for Economic Freedom threw its reputational weight, as it had done in the past, behind the effort to reform the protectionist provisions in the 1987 Constitution.

In all previous attempts at Charter change, conservative groups and allies of the oligarchy that reaps profits from protectionist economic policies at the expense of impoverishing our consumers, always resorted to the silly line that it was not the “right time” to undertake constitutional reform. This time, they cite the pandemic as the excuse not to do Charter change.

Atienza, who used to advocate a constitutional convention rather than a constituent assembly, now argues for the quickest means possible to make the changes. He argues that precisely because of the economic contraction caused by the pandemic, the changes must happen now.

We are all desperate to get our economy moving out of the recession induced by the pandemic. Recovery will not happen if there are no substantial investment flows to revive domestic economic activities.

The only way to get the direly needed investment flows is to remove the archaic constitutional impediments.