Profit-driven, foreign interests made Aquino President; is Mar Roxas next?

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Photo from arabnews.com

Recent pre-election surveys show that administration and Liberal Party (LP) bet Mar Roxas supposedly gaining ground after consistently lagging behind in previous surveys. One dubious research firm even claims that Roxas is the new man to beat. There is apparently a campaign to condition the public mind that a Roxas victory is not far-fetched after all. Roxas himself declared that “It’s my time to top the surveys.”

LP desperately intends to stay in power and Mar Roxas wants to be the next Philippine President at all costs, and an election controlled by profit-driven, foreign interests could help ensure that they do.

Former Commission on Election (Comelec) chair Sixto Brillantes recently admitted that it was the UK-based, private company Smartmatic Inc. that practically ran the 2010 national and local elections and not the poll body.

“If we were to review what happened in the 2010 first automated elections, one will realize that the Comelec then was most dependent on Smartmatic such that it was Smartmatic that practically ran the entire elections, not Comelec,” Brillantes was quoted as saying.

The ex-poll chief’s admission affirms what critics of the automated election system (AES) being implemented by the Comelec have been saying all along. An unaccountable foreign business has monopoly control over our elections, which is supposedly an expression of our democracy and sovereignty as a people.

Smartmatic was also in command of the 2013 midterm elections and will continue to play such role for the upcoming polls on May 9. It maintained its monopoly control over Philippine elections through its automation technology, the contracts it bagged with the Comelec as well as the support and other services that it will provide.

Various factions of the ruling elite aggressively vie for state power during elections not to the serve the people and develop the nation. Traditional politicians and their backers from big business and foreign interests compete for control over the state machinery out of the need to protect and advance their own political and economic interests. It is this intense and never-ending struggle for power and wealth and contradiction within the ruling elite that explain the massive spending (including of public resources) and perennial violence and fraud characterizing Philippine elections.

Put in this context and reality, a private and foreign company like Smartmatic taking over the conduct of the elections takes the subversion of the people’s sovereignty to a whole new level and makes it much easier for contending factions with vested interests to cheat. Whoever has ties – or has the resources to bid the highest – with Smartmatic can buy electoral victory.

Among the groups of the political and economic elite competing for power in the elections next week, it is the LP clique and its candidates led by presidential bet Roxas that have not only the biggest motivation (stay in power, avoid prosecution) and deepest electoral war chest (people’s money), but also the closest links with Smartmatic (through the Aquino family’s ties with Smarmatic chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown). Smartmatic installed Aquino as the country’s first AES President in 2010; it certainly has the capacity to do it again for Roxas.

Smartmatic-Comelec contracts

For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is once again supplying the Comelec with VCM as it continues its profitable partnership with the poll body that started with the PCOS deals in 2010 and 2013. The Comelec is leasing a total of 97,517 VCMs from Smartmatic for about Php8.03 billion. In 2010, Smartmatic leased to the poll body 84,000 PCOS machines for Php7.2 billion. In 2013, Comelec purchased from Smartmatic some 82,000 PCOS machines for Php1.8 billion. Thus, Smartmatic has already bagged more than Php17 billion from its PCOS/VCM transactions with the Comelec for the past three elections, including the one on May 9.

Aside from the poll machines, Smartmatic also cornered contracts with the Comelec for other services. For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is providing as well the Php558-million election results transmission services (ERTS). Smartmatic was able to corner the same contract in 2013 then worth Php405.4 million. Other contracts Smartmatic bagged in 2013 are the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. Comelec also purchased the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS) from Smartmatic in 2013 for Php36.6 million.

The privatization of Philippine elections covers not only the hardware and software for the automated polls; technical support to troubleshoot and address glitches is also controlled by Smartmatic. For the 2016 elections, Smartmatic bagged the Php122-million contract to set up a National Technical Support Center (NTSC) as a call center and troubleshooter for the elections. It was also Smartmatic that cornered the NTSC contract for the 2013 polls worth Php111.56 million.

All in all, the Smartmatic-Comelec contracts are worth well above Php18 billion as summarized in the table below. Note that the table is just a partial, incomplete list as it merely relied on data from various news reports.

Partial list of contracts bagged by Smartmatic in PH elections (in Php million)
Item 2010 2013 2016 Total
PCOS/VCM 7,200 1,800 8,030 17,030
Election Results Transmission Services 405.4 558 963.4
Transmission modems 154.5 154.5
Compact flash cards 93 93
National Technical Support Center 111.56 122 233.56
Total 7,200 2,564.46 8,710 18,474.46
Culled from various media reports

Why Smartmatic keeps on winning Comelec contracts boggles the mind especially considering the numerous and major malfunctions by the machines and services that Smartmatic provided in the past two elections. To illustrate, while the AES law mandates a 99.995% accuracy rate, Smartmatic’s PCOS machines registered a 99.6% rate in 2010 and 99.98% in 2013. These translate to hundreds of thousands of miscounted ballots and undermine the credibility of the election results. Further, Smartmatic’s ERTS is supposed to reach 100% transmission rate within 24 hours. But in 2013, it was able to achieve a mere 76% transmission rate when Comelec started declaring winners.

There have been allegations of rigged bidding to favor Smartmatic such as designing contracts where only Smartmatic can qualify or omitting requirements that will otherwise disqualify Smartmatic, a company tainted with various controversies even before it started its lucrative business here in the Philippines. For the upcoming elections’ bidding for PCOS/VCM, for instance, Comelec required that only those that can supply both the election management system and the machines could bid (which only fits Smartmatic) and that ongoing legal cases (which Smartmatic has arising from past electoral protests) should not prohibit bidders to participate. There were also similar complaints during the 2013 elections such as in the supply of CF cards. A competitor lost because its CF cards don’t work with Smartmatic’s PCOS machines as the latter refused to declare the machines’ technical requirements, which Smartmatic claimed is proprietary information.

But why does the Comelec so heavily favor Smartmatic, allowing it to monopolize the entire automated election system? One possible explanation is the political connections of Smartmatic with groups that have an interest in securing electoral victory. Smartmatic’s chairman, British Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, was the late President Cory Aquino’s campaign strategist during the 1986 snap elections (some accounts claim that Malloch-Brown’s group then – the Sawyer-Miller consultancy firm – was assigned by the US Central Intelligence Agency or CIA to Cory’s camp). In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer during his visit here in June last year, Malloch-Brown claimed that his “final outstanding accomplishment during the Cory campaign was to produce an exit poll that indicated that she had won”. Malloch-Brown has supposedly developed a close relationship with the Aquino family and there were reports that he met with Cory’s son President Benigno Aquino III and other politicians during his visit in the Philippines last year. Malloch-Brown, however denied this, apparently mindful of repercussions in public perception.

Nonetheless, the presence of Malloch-Brown, a foreigner who made a career out of influencing elections in supposedly sovereign countries and strategizing for client political elites, in a private company that runs our elections is a big red flag. It further underscores the dangers of privatizing elections that have been perpetually marred by massive fraud even before automation.

The failure of the current AES technology to reach minimum standards set by the law means that election results could not be relied upon. At best, they could just be the result of glitches caused by machine/software and human errors. At worst, they point to the planned manipulation of poll results by those who have access to the election technology or have ties with the private and foreign interests that control the technology. Both in 2010 and 2013, allegations of electronic fraud were widespread ranging from supposedly altered results being transmitted by the PCOS machines to pre-programming of results such as the so-called “60-30-10” pattern (60% of votes for administration bets; 30% for opposition; and 10% for other candidates) during the midterm senatorial election.

It doesn’t help that another seemingly favored private, foreign company is also controlling the conduct of the source code review, a supposed safeguard under the AES law that scrutinizes the software to be used by the voting machines and by the canvassing and consolidation system. For the May 2016 elections, US-based SLI Global Solutions Inc. (formerly Systest Labs Inc.) is carrying out the source code review for Php35 million as it did in 2010 and 2013.

Undermining democracy and sovereignty

To be sure, the flaws of the country’s electoral system go beyond the issue of conducting it manually or electronically. Whether manual or electronic, elections will remain undemocratic as long as the people are left to choose among the same contending factions of the political and economic elite. And these groups and families vying for control of state power in order to advance the economic and political interests they represent will continue to find ways to subvert the elections through direct cheating, political patronage and/or violence and terrorism.

But these fundamental problems of the electoral system are further worsened by allowing private and foreign companies through the technology they own to control the entire electoral process – from reading and recording of ballots to the canvassing of results. Even for the technical support, troubleshooting, installation of system, training of staff, etc., the Comelec is completely dependent on a private, foreign company.

While modernizing the way the country conducts its elections with the use of appropriate technology founded on the principles of transparency and credibility is the right step to take, the AES that the Comelec has been implementing since 2010 is further undermining election as a democratic exercise and an expression of the people’s sovereignty. ###

(Portions of this article were lifted from an article I wrote for IBON Features)

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5 reasons why workers will reject “Daang Matuwid” in the May elections

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Photo from gettyimages.com

The “Daang Matuwid” regime of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, which Liberal Party (LP) standard bearer Secretary Mar Roxas vows to continue, has been notoriously anti-worker throughout its six-year rule. Below are five reasons why Filipino workers will overwhelmingly reject the “Daang Matuwid” regime in the upcoming May 9 elections:

  1. Daang Matuwid opposed any meaningful increase in the daily minimum wage and further cheapened the already low wages of workers

Daang Matuwid has consistently opposed proposals for a substantial wage hike. Since 2010, the daily minimum wage in the Philippines has only increased by Php13 (Ilocos Region or Region I) to Php77 (National Capital Region or NCR). These adjustments are insignificant amid the soaring cost of living. For instance, in NCR where the minimum wage is the highest and which also posted the largest wage hike among all regions, the estimated cost of living jumped by more than Php114 during the same period, easily offsetting the Php77-adjustment in the minimum wage. Consequently, the already big gap between the daily minimum wage and the daily cost of living has even furthered widened under Daang Matuwid – from Php571 in 2010 to about Php608 today. This means that the capacity of workers and their families to meet basic food and non-food needs has been further eroded.

Worse, instead of a substantial wage increase, Daang Matuwid introduced the so-called two-tiered wage system that provided capitalists another tool in pressing down the pay of their workers. Under the two-tiered wage system, companies will give workers a basic floor wage, which is computed above the official poverty threshold but below the existing average pay. Employers can then voluntarily increase the basic floor wage depending on their own computation of the workers’ productivity. Such system means greater abandonment of government of its obligation to set wages that would allow workers and their families to achieve decent living while giving profit-seeking firms more freedom to exploit the workers.

  1. Daang Matuwid worsened the burden of workers with onerous taxes

Daang Matuwid oppressed Filipino workers with onerous taxes. Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines has the highest rates for income tax (5-32%) and for the value-added tax or VAT (12%). The tax system is so oppressive that that those earning about Php50,000 a month pay the same tax rate of 32% as the billionaires who own and run the country’s biggest conglomerates. Meanwhile, the regressive 12% VAT punishes the ordinary income earners as even the most basic goods and services are covered including water, electricity and petroleum products, which all directly impact on the standard of living and inflate the cost of other commodities.

There have been several proposals in Congress to correct this injustice but were rejected by the Daang Matuwid regime, dismissing them as populist and impractical measures. “Kung papogihan lang ito, wag na tayong mag-income tax,” Mar Roxas was quoted as saying. But the issue, of course, is much deeper than “papogihan” as a progressive tax reform system will allow a just distribution of wealth, help improve the living condition of many, and spur economic growth driven by domestic spending.

Another additional tax burden imposed on Filipino workers by Daang Matuwid is the so-called sin tax on alcohol and tobacco products. Guised as a measure to supposedly address health concerns caused by smoking and drinking (even as the national health budget remains grossly inadequate, state hospitals are being privatized, and poverty-related illnesses remain widespread amid low wages/incomes and lack of jobs), the sin tax in reality is primarily aimed at raising government revenues at the expense of ordinary income earners.

  1. Daang Matuwid rejected calls to increase the limited benefits enjoyed by workers such as their SSS pension

Just early this year, President Aquino vetoed the bill hiking the monthly pension (which has been at a paltry Php1,200 for almost two decades now) of 2.1 million members of the Social Security System (SSS). The Daang Matuwid regime justified its heartless decision by claiming that the SSS might go bankrupt if the proposed Php2,000-pension hike is implemented.

But as proponents of the pension hike led by Bayan Muna Rep. and Makabayan senatorial bet Neri Colmenares pointed out, SSS can avoid bankruptcy if it will improve its collection efficiency that currently stands at a dismal 35-38% (including an uncollected amount of Php13 billion as of 2014) and cut back questionable expenses such as massive bonuses for its board members (e.g. Php200 million in retirement package). The administrative cost of SSS at almost 7% of contributions is too high compared to other countries (e.g. Singapore’s 0.5% or Malaysia’s 2%). By stoking bankruptcy fears, the Daang Matuwid regime is also oblivious to its legally mandated obligation to replenish the SSS should it incur a deficit arising from the pension hike.

For the elderly workers, the Php2,000-pension hike means duly recognizing their contribution not only to the SSS fund but to the national economy while promoting their capacity to support themselves in their retirement.

  1. Daang Matuwid failed to address the jobs crisis and to promote the job security of workers

The Daang Matuwid regime would want us to believe that the jobs situation has improved under its watch. But nothing could be farther from the truth. While 692,000 jobs a year appear to have been created between 2010 and 2015, almost 7 out of 10 of the additional jobs were made in hotels, restaurants, call centers, malls, and other less productive sectors as well as in highly seasonal, contractual work like construction. In addition, research group IBON Foundation noted that job creation under Daang Matuwid is much weaker compared to previous years. Between 2000 and 2009, for instance, 732,000 jobs were created annually.

Chronic job scarcity is being concealed by distorted official employment data as government labor surveys tend to exclude jobless workers who have already been discouraged by lack of employment opportunities. Including such workers, IBON estimates that unemployment rate remains at double-digit with more than 4 million jobless workers today – or basically the same as the situation before Daang Matuwid took over.

A separate survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), on the other hand, shows that the number of jobless actually increased from an average of 9.5 million in 2010 to 9.8 million in 2015.

Also, four out of 10 workers are own-account and unpaid family workers that further illustrate the low quality of jobs in the country. Job insecurity, meanwhile, remains severe. IBON estimated that four out of 10 rank and file workers are in non-regular work – e.g., contractual, probationary, casual, seasonal, apprentice workers or agency-hired.

  1. Daang Matuwid continued neoliberal policies like PPP that resulted in higher prices and fees

Daang Matuwid’s centerpiece economic program – the public-private partnership (PPP) – is a continuation, expansion and deepening of the same neoliberal privatization policy started by the first Aquino administration in the 1980s. Under PPP, fares in the LRT 1 and 2 and MRT 3 have jumped by as much Php10 to 13. Among the most affected are the workers/employees and job seekers who comprise about 59% of LRT and MRT commuters. Another 32% are students mostly from working class families.

While the Daang Matuwid has vehemently opposed substantial wage hike, increase in SSS pension, and reduction in taxes, it has showered with generous perks the billionaire oligarchs who cornered PPP contracts. Under the LRT 1 PPP deal, for instance, the Daang Matuwid regime has given enormous benefits to the consortium of Ayala Corp. and the Manny Pangilinan group. Of the total project cost of Php64.9 billion, Daang Matuwid made the public shoulder Php34.9 billion or 54% of the total. Government share includes expenses for right of way acquisition, purchase of additional coaches, civil works and construction of depots. The Ayala-Pangilinan group also enjoys real property tax exemptions reportedly costing Php64 billion. ###

Mar Roxas: From Mr. Palengke to Mr. Perwisyo

Roxas’s 180-degree turn on the issue of oil VAT is yet another proof that the supposed change the Aquino administration has been peddling is nothing but an illusion (Photo from plurk.com)

On the heels of the successful nationwide people’s protest against high oil prices last March 15, Malacañang reaffirmed its position not to lift the 12% value-added tax (VAT) on oil. One of the administration officials who immediately articulated the Palace stand was Mar Roxas, secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). Defending the oil VAT, Roxas said that revenues generated by the controversial tax “are being used to render services to the public”. “It’s easy to say ‘stop collecting taxes’ but this would mean that a particular government service will be affected,” Roxas argued.

Mar column

It’s amazing how fast Roxas changed his mind about the oil VAT. To those who have a short memory, let me refresh your recollection by quoting portions of Roxas’s column Mr. Palengke that the tabloid Abante used to publish. The opinion piece, entitled “$100 kada bariles”, was published by the popular daily in its Jan. 8, 2008 issue. It was Roxas’s reaction to the then escalating prices of oil that for the first time breached the $100-a barrel mark.

(Click on image to download full article)

“Hindi na po normal ang sitwasyon natin ngayon. Alam nating ang langis ay talagang nakakaapekto sa lahat ng aspeto ng pamumuhay: transportasyon, pagkain, kuryente, manufacturing ng mga produkto, at marami pang iba. Kaya sa bawat pagtaas ng presyo ng langis, sumusunod naman ang presyo ng iba pang produkto at serbisyo. Nanganganib talaga ang bulsa ni Juan dela Cruz. Maikli na ang kanyang pisi, lalo pa itong iikli.

Naaalala ko, noong kakatapos lang na ipasa ang Expanded Value-Added Tax Law noong 2005, sumipa ang presyo ng krudo mula $36 kada bariles hanggang $56, at natakot tayo noon na sumipa pa ito sa $75 kada bariles.

Ngayon, $100 na, ang layo na sa dating mga presyo at kailangan na talaga ang parehong mga agaran at pangmatagalang solusyon sa umaalagwang presyo ng langis. Kailangan na ng political will. Walang lugar para sa mga “token-ism,” o mga pakitang tao. Kung talagang ginugusto ng pamahalaan na makatulong sa ating mga kababayan, isang malinaw at kongkretong hakbang na maisasagawa ay ang agarang pagsuspinde sa EVAT sa langis at mga produktong petrolyo.

Agarang ginhawa sa halagang P4 kada litro ng diesel o P60 kada tangke ng LPG ang maidudulot nito. Kung gusto talaga ng pamahalaan na mapaginhawa ang buhay ng ating mga kababayan, sana’y suportahan nila ang ating panukala.

Hanggang ngayon, tila ba hindi pa rin nagbabagong-loob ang administrasyon dito. Nakakalungkot, dahil P20-30 bilyon lamang ang mawawala sa pamahalaan sa anim na buwang suspensiyon ng EVAT sa langis, kumpara sa kalakhang P1 trilyong revenues nito. At sabihin nang sa mga social services daw, tulad ng edukasyon at kalusugan napupunta ang pondong ito, nararamdaman ba ninyo ito?

Ang nakakalungkot pa, malaking halaga ng buwis na dapat makolekta ay nawawala dahil sa katiwalian at iba pang mga leakages. Noong 2006 nga, ayon sa isang pag-aaral ng DOF mismo, may P107 bilyon ang hindi nakolekta dahil sa mga leakage. Ang lalong nakakalungkot, ang kalakhan ng mga leakage ay naroon sa mga buwis na hindi nakokolekta sa mga malalaking tao. Hindi nakolekta ang P81.96 bilyong potensiyal na kita mula sa corporate income tax. Samantala, ang tinatawag na “tax gap rate” sa income tax ng mga negosyante at propesyonal ay nananatiling mataas, sa 40%, kumpara sa tax gap rate ng income tax ng mga manggagawa, na nasa 10% lamang.”

Pera ni Juan dela Cruz ito, hindi ito pera ng gobyerno. Hangga’t hindi natin nakikita na mahusay ang paggastos ng gobyerno sa pera ng taumbayan, mabuting ibalik muna ito sa kanila upang maibsan ang kanilang kahirapan. Ipinasa noon ang EVAT dahil nanganganib na humina ang ekonomiya dahil sa sinasabi nilang “fiscal crisis”. Ngayon naman, nanganganib na bumagsak ang ekonomiya kapag naipit nang naipit ang pagkonsumo ng ating mga kababayan. Ibang sakit ang ating nararanasan ngayon, hindi puwedeng parehong gamot pa rin ang ating inumin.” (All emphases mine)

People deserve break

Roxas used to think that removing the VAT on oil, even if temporarily as he proposed then, will translate to immediate benefits for the poor. In his 2008 column, he said it’s P4 per liter for diesel and P60 per 11-kilogram (kg) tank for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Today, the immediate benefits are even bigger – for diesel, it’s almost P6 per liter and for LPG, as much as P110. “Government believes it should keep on collecting EVAT on oil and be the sole arbiter on how these revenues should be reallocated. I say, let’s give our people a break… Give the people instantaneous relief from high prices and meager incomes,” said then Senator Roxas in a separate Dec. 20, 2007 press statementNoon, the people deserve a break, pero hindi na ngayon?

VAT for debt servicing

Indeed, the points Roxas had raised against the continued collection of VAT amid soaring oil prices remain as valid as ever. His arguments, in fact, could very well answer the Aquino administration’s excuses to justify the VAT on oil today. For instance, while revenues have increased because of the oil VAT, social services continued to be marginalized in terms of government spending. Most of the revenues are being siphoned off by debt servicing. When Roxas was raising the issue of oil VAT in 2008, social services comprised less than 21% of total public expenditures while the total debt burden (interest payments and principal amortization) accounted for more than 34 percent. In 2011, preliminary data show that social services are still marginalized at less than 23% of public expenditures while the debt burden continued to hold the lion’s share with more than 31 percent. As Roxas said, “Pera ni Juan dela Cruz ito, hindi ito pera ng gobyerno”. Why should we allow the Aquino administration to be the sole arbiter on how these resources should be used?

Tax leakage

Roxas’s point on the tax leakage, meanwhile, remains a compelling argument against the VAT on oil. A 2010 study by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimated that individual tax leakage could reach at least P35.69 billion a year from 2011 to 2016. From 2001 to 2005, the individual tax leakage was pegged at P35.74 billion a year, according to a 2006 study by the National Tax Research Commission (NTRC). Despite the hype of Daang Matuwid, the fact remains that bureaucratic corruption, inefficiency, and wastage continue to deprive government of potential revenues. Alas, like the Arroyo administration, the Aquino government is over-relying on the regressive and burdensome VAT instead of finding other ways to raise revenues such as addressing the perennial tax leakage.

“Perwisyo”

As mentioned, Roxas is now dismissing the very same arguments he once espoused against the oil VAT. For him, protest actions against the VAT and deregulation – issues he used to consider as legitimate concerns that government must address – are “perwisyo” or nuisance. Of course, only the naïve will be surprised by such turnaround of a traditional politician. Roxas obviously just rode on the very popular anti-VAT sentiment when he was still eyeing the presidency. (He eventually gave way to Aquino and ran for the vice presidency but lost to Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay in the 2010 elections.) But now that he is part of the incumbent administration as a Cabinet official, the oil VAT has suddenly become indispensable.

Thus, from the consumer advocate Mr. Palengke, Roxas has now transformed into the VAT apologist Mr. Perwisyo.

Illusion of change

Finally, let me share another quotable quote:

“Napakahalaga ang VAT… Ito ang sagot sa mga problemang namana natin… Kung aalisin ang VAT, hihina ang kumpyansa ng negosyo, lalong tataas ang interes, lalong bababa ang piso, lalong mamahal ang bilihin… Kapag ibinasura ang VAT… ang mas makikinabang ay ang mga may kaya…”

That’s not President Aquino or one of Malacañang’s mouthpieces speaking, although the tune is very familiar to the one being chorused by administration officials. It was Mrs. Gloria Arroyo in her speech during her State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Jul. 28, 2008. Arroyo was responding to Roxas and many others who were demanding that the oil VAT be removed or reduced and that pump prices, which then were reaching historic highs, be controlled.

Tapos na ang pamumunong manhid sa daing ng taumbayan? Roxas’s 180-degree turn on the issue of oil VAT is yet another proof that the supposed change the Aquino administration has been peddling is nothing but an illusion. #

Prospects of Aquino’s Oil Deregulation Law review

The transport strike and people's protest last Sep. 19 underscored the message that Aquino should not pay lip service to the people’s longstanding demand to control petroleum prices. (Photo by Nino Jesus Orbeta/INQUIRER.net)

First published by The Philippine Online Chronicles

In an effort to preempt the transport groups from staging a potentially massive strike, President Benigno S. Aquino III last week held a dialog with the leaders of the transport sector. Malacañang was partly successful as only the Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (PISTON) went ahead with the transport strike last Sep. 19 while the others backed out.

PISTON was supported by fellow progressive people’s organizations which staged mass protests in various parts of Metro Manila. Transport strikes and people’s protests were also held in various parts of Southern Luzon and Mindanao, where transportation was crippled.

Arrogant, insensitive

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that Malacañang is dismayed that PISTON still pushed through with the transport strike despite the dialog even as he claimed that very few passengers were affected. He also chided the transport group for opting to be part of the problem and not of the solution.

Meanwhile, Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) visited the protesters not to express sympathy but to tell them in person that the strike was “perwisyo” (nuisance) to the public. Lacierda’s and Roxas’s statements speak volumes about how the Aquino administration appreciates the problem of exorbitant oil prices and the plight of ordinary people like the jeepney drivers.

Such arrogance is supposed to be a thing of the past because the “pamumunong
manhid sa daing ng taumbayan”
supposedly ended last June 30, 2010. But like its predecessor, the Aquino administration is proving to be as arrogant and as insensitive to the legitimate grievances of the people. It is proving to be as repressive, too. The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) is reportedly reviewing the franchise of PISTON members who joined the transport strike.

All this casts doubts on the sincerity of the Aquino administration to have another look at the Oil Deregulation Law as promised by the President during the dialog with transport groups.

Task force

As Malacañang’s response to the transport strike, Roxas has announced that government has formed a task force composed of the DOTC, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to probe “questionable collaboration” among oil firms in setting prices.

“The task force will investigate how oil companies come up with market oil price, particularly how much they actually spend to import the product from oil cartels in the Middle East, transfer it via Singapore or other routes, and load the products into gasoline trucks before they reach oil gas stations,” said Roxas.

But it is unclear if the task force is the implementation of Aquino’s order to review the deregulation policy. If it is, then the review is in danger of being reduced to how the law may be improved to better monitor oil prices instead of being a full-blown
investigation of Republic Act (RA) 8479.

To be sure, an investigation of the pricing scheme of the oil companies should form an important aspect ofthe review but it should not be the only focus. The review must also seek to answer equally important issues such as whether or not the monopoly of the so-called Big Three (Petron Corporation, Pilipinas Shell, and Chevron Philippines) has been dismantled under deregulation.

These issues can only be pursued through an exhaustive review which should be open to exploring alternatives including the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law and instituting effective state control over the oil industry.

Credible review

Furthermore, the review must immediately translate to legislation given the urgency and magnitude of the problem. As such, the review should not be left to the agencies of the Executive branch alone. Instead, it must be a joint effort of Malacañang and the Energy Committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate where there are already pending proposals on what to do with RA 8479 such as House Bill (HB) 4355.

This shall fast track the process and ensures that the results of the review will quickly translate to concrete policies, not to mention that government can even save on its meager resources. If Aquino truly wants to review the law, he should muster the support of his party mates and allies in Congress to immediately act on the pending bills.

Also, the process should be as democratic as possible and must seek the participation of people’s organizations including the transport sector, workers, farmers, consumers, women, and youth. It must also include independent experts from non-government advocacy groups of academics, researchers, economists, and scientists among others.

Otherwise, Aquino’s review order will just end up like the last review of the deregulation policy conducted in 2005. The Independent Review Committee created by Arroyo ended up dismissing all the issues raised against RA 8479 and bolstered criticisms that the initiative was nothing but a moro-moro to reaffirm the legitimacy of the much-criticized deregulation policy.

Regulation as alternative

The Aquino administration must recognize that the “proper” implementation of RA 8479 or even amending it to supposedly give the DOE more power to police the oil firms will not address the problem.

One particular contentious issue is overpricing, a persistent allegation that has long been hounding the oil firms. Any deregulation law will not have a provision on overpricing because deregulation assumes that the market and competition will set the “fair” price. But this is a fallacy especially in the case of the oil industry which since time immemorial has been dominated and controlled by the monopoly of giant companies from the US and Europe.

To curb overpricing and ensure reasonable prices at the pump, there must be a system of public hearing before any increase in prices is made. Unlike today when oil companies can automatically increase their prices – whether monthly, weekly or even daily – effective regulation will require them to justify the oil price hike up to the last centavo.

In addition, the government must also have an active role in the importation, storage, refining, and retailing of petroleum products. To effectively regulate the oil industry including the determination of prices, the public needs to know where the petroleum imports come from, how much were they bought, in what quantity, etc. – details that are hidden from the consumers under the current set-up of decentralized importation.

Centralized procurement of oil imports – even if gradually implemented based on available government resources – will help correct this defect. The government must also buy back Petron to better ensure reasonable prices and stable supply of oil products. Other key reforms include the establishment of an oil price and supply buffer fund that should cushion the impact of drastic increases in global prices on local petroleum products.

Political pressure

Is the Aquino administration ready and willing to consider these policy reforms in lieu of the Oil Deregulation Law? Aquino has already demonstrated his strong bias for neoliberal free market policies. He has earlier rejected calls for price control and junking of RA 8479 amid public clamor for substantial government intervention as pump prices skyrocketed in the first quarter of the year.

Instead, Aquino implemented the much-hyped but severely lacking P300-million Pantawid Pasada fuel subsidy. It also turned out that only P70 million has been released so far for the said program since it was launched five months ago.

In fact, even after ordering the review of RA 8479, Malacañang continued to express support for deregulation. Abigail Valte, another presidential mouthpiece, said after the dialog that “the President stressed that the idea behind the law is to espouse competition… He believes there is more room for competition.”

Indeed, reconsidering the deregulation law has never been in the agenda of the Aquino administration. It was not, for instance, included in the priority bills – even the proposals to amend RA 8479 – that Malacañang submitted to the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) during its first meeting under Aquino last March. At that time, oil prices were soaring at an alarming pace, threatening to duplicate the oil crisis in early 2008.

Aquino only ordered a review of the Oil Deregulation Law after PISTON and other transport groups threatened to stage a strike against unreasonable oil prices and the lack of state regulation. PISTON’s decision to still push through with the transport strike even after the dialog underscored the message that Aquino should not pay lip service to the people’s longstanding demand to control petroleum prices.

It also serves as a reminder that the powers-that-be will not act on pro-people reforms without unrelenting pressure from the streets. For Aquino’s review order of the deregulation policy to benefit the people, the people must keep on the pressure. #