Manila Times

 

  • Populist sound bites no solution to fuel price woes

    THE constant increases in fuel prices in the Philippines, which have gone up every week for the past two months, are obviously a source of grave concern for the government and the public. This has been a boon of sorts for political candidates, who have used the crisis to signal their public interest virtues by calling for, among other things, the suspension of the excise tax on fuel to ease the burden of high prices. These calls are at best unproductive, perhaps even irresponsible, and should be ignored.

    So far, presidential aspirants Sen. Panfilo Lacson, former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo and Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso have all made calls for suspending the fuel tax and related tax reductions or other relief. Labor leader Leodegario "Ka Leody" de Guzman, the presidential candidate of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), has said suspending the excise tax would not help and has called, instead, for even more sweeping changes in the form of reregulating the oil industry. Even Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, who is not running for office but serves a bit of a campaign role as head of the PDP-Laban party, joined the bandwagon by also calling for a suspension of the excise tax.

    The latter's statement earned a bit of a rebuke from the Department of Finance (DoF), which issued a memorandum that pointed out the government would incur a revenue loss of up to P131.4 billion for 2022 if the fuel excise tax was suspended, and urging that the suggestion be "appropriately studied" before being seriously considered. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd also explained, and not for the first time, that the current excise tax law in no way transfers the constitutional power of the purse from Congress to the Department of Energy, and that any adjustment not already provided for in the law would require new legislation.

    Currently, the excise tax on fuel is set at P10 per liter for gasoline, P6 per liter for diesel, and P5 per liter for kerosene. The excise tax is supposed to be inflation-adjusted annually, but the law includes a provision for suspending an annual increase — not the tax itself — if oil prices are above a certain threshold for a period of three months.

    The suspension of the scheduled increase, which has happened before, might happen again if oil prices remain at their current levels through the end of the year, but as dire as the situation may be portrayed at the moment, it is nowhere near the level where the safeguard would be implemented.

    Candidate de Guzman is correct in one respect: the problem of high fuel prices is not caused by the fuel excise tax, and would not be solved by suspending it. The tax is assessed on a volume basis and is not based on price, and thus would be the same no matter what the underlying oil prices are. It is conceivable, and perhaps probable, that even after a hypothetical tax suspension were to be applied, oil prices would continue to rise and cancel out the short-term relief.

    The DoF also made a very critical point in detailing the potential revenue loss to the government. After almost two years of the coronavirus pandemic, government finances are in a delicate condition. Forgoing any revenue at all, especially the substantial amount that would be lost if the fuel excise tax is suspended, is simply out of the question — unless the people are willing to forgo a considerable amount of services and support in exchange for it, which is unlikely.

    High fuel prices are indeed a most unwelcome source of economic stress for the country, but there are unfortunately not many solutions that do not carry some even more serious unintended consequences. Simply calling for a suspension of the excise tax without thoroughly understanding the issue is unwise, and dangerously misleading. As an alternative, the government could consider some form of short-term relief for those most adversely affected by high fuel prices, primarily the transport sector, which would help to alleviate the burden to some degree.

  • Defending against another Covid wave

    THE United Kingdom and Russia are facing what could be new and massive Covid-19 surges, and this early, Philippine health authorities must keep a sharp eye out on how events in those countries unfold.

    British health experts are trying to determine if the new spurt in Covid-19 cases is being triggered by a new strain of the Delta variant, called Delta AY 4.2. There is evidence that this mutation spreads faster than the original variant although it still is unclear if it could lead to more severe cases or is "invisible" to the present array of Covid vaccines.

    So far, more than 15,000 cases of AY 4.2 have been confirmed in Britain since it was first detected in July. That's 6 percent of the overall Delta cases confirmed.

    Britain has more than 50,000 Covid-19 cases, the second highest rate in the world behind the United States.

    Russia is battling a resurgence of infections with new cases racing past 30,000 and deaths at a record high of 1,015.

    In Moscow, stringent restrictions have been imposed with unvaccinated senior citizens told to stay home for four months, starting October 25.

    President Vladimir Putin has also been asked to declare October 30 to November 7 as nonworking days nationwide to prevent crowds from assembling and giving the virus the chance to spread further.

    Despite having an ample supply of vaccines (and being the first to roll out a Covid-19 vaccine), Russia's inoculation program is way below target for herd immunity with just over 45 percent of the population having been jabbed. This makes about 51 million people vulnerable to infection.

    The coronavirus resurgence in the two countries comes at a time when the Philippines is well on the path to reviving the economy. The government is confident that the virus has been limited to a few areas and has ruled out another nationwide outbreak.

    The prospects are bright that the situation will improve further by Christmas. But let us not forget that about this time last year, we were eagerly looking at 2021 as the year that we would beat the pandemic.

    Doubts began to erode that enthusiasm in January when the Department of Health confirmed the country's first case of the UK variant, a 29-year-old resident of Quezon City who flew in from Dubai early that month. A few days later, UK variant cases turned up as far north as Kalinga.

    Health officials were amazed at how quickly the variant had spread. In just weeks, it had almost the entire country in its grip. The infections waned to manageable levels after a series of long hard lockdowns.

    Just when we thought we had survived the worst, the Delta variant came surging in and would have continued to rampage had its advance not been arrested by the massive immunization drive that began in March.

    Now that the threat from AY 4.2 looms, we hope the government has learned enough from its battles with the UK and Delta variants to come up with a better defense strategy.

    For one, it needs to review its porous border control system, which allowed the virus to sneak in. Travel restrictions were imposed only after the UK and Delta variants had already reached our shores.

    Testing and quarantining procedures must also be consistent and not subject to abrupt and confusing modifications.

    The new policy of practically waving through travelers from "green countries" — those considered as low risk for Covid-19 — definitely has to be reevaluated in the wake of the new outbreaks in Britain and Russia.

    Those two countries are not in the green list, but there is no telling if travelers from those places had spent time in a listed country before flying on to the Philippines.

    The Health department should also have enough information about AY 4.2 to find out if the vaccines in use in the country are effective against it just in case it has to stock up on more potent upgrades.

    The threat may be remote, but we can't take any chances. We were wrong-footed twice before. We can't afford a third time.

  • Welcome broad political views, but choose wisely

    WE disagree with recent initiatives to disqualify leftist party-list groups from the 2022 elections. But while we believe that a democracy should accommodate a broad spectrum of political views, we do not endorse those groups that have been targeted for disqualification. In fact, we urge people to vote against them.

    Last week, organizations representing parents of students recruited by militant groups asked the Commission on Elections to disqualify party-lists belonging to the Makabayan bloc. The latter, in turn, accused the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) of being behind the disqualification move and of "red-tagging" them.

    The task force released a statement about disqualifying the Makabayan bloc, saying, "The groups said Bayan Muna, Kabataan, Anakpawis, ACT Teachers and Gabriela Women's Party have been active in the CPP-NPA's underground revolutionary tactics to push for a communist system." The statement went on to say that the Anti-Terrorism Council has designated the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) as terror organizations. The party-lists in question may be leftists, but they deny being part of the outlawed terror groups.

    We could go on and on with other claims and counterclaims. But our point is this: if the NTF-Elcac hopes to end the rebel communist movement, it seems better to allow the leftists to compete in the political arena rather than in the jungles or elsewhere in the shadows. It would be better for the leftists to fight government with political rhetoric rather than with guns and bullets.

    Besides, the larger objective of the NTF-Elcac is to defend our democratic values and principles. Assuming that is correct, the task force should remember that a democracy guarantees basic rights and freedoms to every citizen. Denying certain groups the right to participate in the political process seems incongruent with the democratic principles that the NTF-Elcac values and protects.

    Of course, the rights and freedom provided in a democracy are not absolute. Still, the NTF-Elcac and others in government should not lose sight of those principles as they carry out their mandate. In the end, the inclusion of the leftists in the democratic process may encourage more of their like to lay down their arms and instead use peaceful political discourse to advance their cause.

    Voter beware

    Even as we urge the NTF-Elcac to be broadminded and strategic, we wish to make it clear that we do not endorse the Makabayan bloc in the 2022 polls. We cannot support groups that do not condemn the use of terrorism and other acts of violence as a political tool.

    In parrying these criticisms, the Makabayan bloc insists that the public should understand the root causes of the communist rebellion in the Philippines. Even the senatorial candidates allied with the bloc make a similar argument.

    Filipinos should remember that many communist and socialist regimes in the past century have been more repressive and authoritarian than the governments criticized by the leftists today. Communism was discredited decades ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and those who remain loyal to that imported ideology are living in the past. Even countries that label themselves as communist today, such as China and the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe, have embraced many aspects of capitalism in creating their own mixed economies.

    Truth be told, many in the Makabayan bloc will likely be elected despite our objection to them. They appeal to a base that practically assures them of sufficient votes for reelection. But so long as they win in the ballots peacefully, then we can accept that outcome.

    This is also our point to the NTF-Elcac and others espousing to disqualify certain groups because of their political views. Oftentimes, the people's choice fail to satisfy everyone. It is not supposed to anyway. In accommodating divergent views, democracy can be a messy process, and that certainly applies to the Philippines.

    The important thing is that all views are heard and debated in a peaceful, and preferably respectful, manner. And the best that we should all hope for is for voters to make an informed choice on election day.

  • US Congress shows right use of contempt powers

    THE case of Stephen Bannon, the top aide of former US president Donald Trump, is not only relevant as a news item. Compared to how the Philippine Senate cites people in contempt, the Bannon case also serves as a reminder of how lawmakers could wield their power without violating the constitutional and human rights of individuals.

    Recently, American congressmen voted to cite Mr. Bannon in contempt after he ignored a subpoena to testify in a hearing about the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Under their system, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) will decide whether to prosecute Mr. Bannon. Note that like in the Philippines, the US DoJ belongs to the executive branch.

    If the US DoJ decides to prosecute, the contempt case goes before a grand jury, which acts as a guard against wrongful prosecution. The grand jury will hear arguments from both prosecutors and the defense team of Mr. Bannon and will decide if there is enough evidence to charge him with the crime of contempt in a court of law. Of course, courts belong to the judicial branch.

    If the grand jury rules against Mr. Bannon, only then will he be charged in court. The legal term for being charged or accused is called an indictment. And if Mr. Bannon is found guilty after a court trial after that, then he faces sentencing. The maximum penalty for ignoring the US Congress' subpoena is a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. This is separate from the penalties he might face in the January 6 incident.

    Many Filipinos might ask why Americans go through all those steps. The US Constitution, very much like the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines that copied it, mandates due process. Both constitutions respect basic rights that are normal in all democracies, including provisions that guarantee that no person shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process.

    Of course, the two constitutions are nonidentical. But both are built on similar core principles, including the separation of powers assigned to each branch of government.

    Pharmally case

    In the hearing of alleged overpricing of personal protective equipment (PPE), the Philippine Senate seems to be ignoring those core principles, especially the protections under our Bill of Rights. Through mere Senate rules, lawmakers have appropriated powers assigned to the executive branch to prosecute witnesses cited for contempt and detain them without a court trial for that offense.

    Sen. Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan, who is running for vice president in the 2022 elections, even moved to transfer the Senate's detainee from its building to the Pasay City Jail. Meanwhile, Sen. Ana Theresia "Risa" Hontiveros, who is seeking reelection, seems to have lost her human rights principles and was all for detaining witnesses simply for being evasive or for allegedly lying under oath.

    In fairness to Sen. Richard "Dick" Gordon, who heads the blue ribbon panel, this overreach by lawmakers has been practiced in the past by other senators and by congressmen in our House of Representatives. But that does not make them right.

    As we said before, the crimes alleged in the PPE procurement case may be true. The government officials and Pharmally executives being grilled may be guilty as accused. But the power to determine guilt belongs to the courts, not the Senate. And certainly, the power to detain individuals, regardless of how guilty they may be portrayed in congressional hearings, belongs to the executive branch.

    Sen. Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, who is running for president also in next year's polls, defended the blue ribbon committee's actions as justifiable under Senate rules. With all due respect, presidential aspirants should reread the Bill of Rights and remember that no law or rule trumps the 1987 Constitution.

    To be clear, we also want justice to be served. If there was graft and corruption in the procurement of PPE sets, then let the perpetrators face justice. Prosecute them in court. And if found guilty, let them suffer the maximum penalties provided by law.

    We are not arguing over procedures. Basic and other constitutional rights should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of justice. Certainly, they should not be set aside for political convenience.

  • PH must review import restrictions on environmental goods

    IN a recent report, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN Escap) has tagged the Philippines as having "imposed the most number of NTMs (non-tariff measures) on environmental goods" in 2019, which was reported by some local media last week. While a careful reading of the report in question shows that the situation is not as alarming as the news stories about it suggested, it does raise concerns that there are some unnecessary and perhaps unintended restrictions that should be reviewed.

    The "Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report (Aptir) 2021" published by UN Escap focused on flows of "environmental goods" among the 53 member countries of the commission, using 2019 data. The Philippines plays a minuscule role in this trade, accounting for only 2 percent of the total imports and virtually no exports.

    The list of what qualifies as "environmental goods" is quite large; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, for example, endorses 54 harmonized system (HS) codes as classifications for environmental goods, each one of which can apply to dozens or even hundreds of individual items. In general, environmental goods with respect to trade are those intended for "sustainable" purposes, such as recycled or renewable organic materials for construction or manufacturing, components of renewable or low-carbon energy systems, pollution control or waste processing equipment, and many others.

    Non-tariff measures that are applied to environmental goods, as described by the UN Escap report, include non-automatic licensing (i.e., additional permit requirements), quotas, prohibitions, quantity control measures and price control measures, including additional non-tariff taxes and charges.

    Compared with the rest of the regional group, the Philippines has among the lowest tariffs on environmental goods, averaging less than 4 percent. This is considerably below the regional average of 5.78 percent, as well as being below the APEC goal of 5 percent or less.

    However, the Philippines is by far the most heavy-handed when it comes to the application of NTMs, with imports of environmental goods subject to more than four NTMs on average, three times the regional average of 1.18.

    As the Aptir points out, most of these obstacles are probably unintentional, the result of environmental goods "being caught up in" broader measures applied to many types of imports, rather than being specifically targeted. The effect, however, is the same; imports of environmental goods face higher costs and more red tape, to no obvious benefit.

    Positive momentum

    In the past few years the Philippines has made significant strides in adopting policies that promote environmental sustainability. Some steps have been taken to encourage the development of renewable energy, a significant amount of effort has been applied to environmental rehabilitation in areas around the country, and even smaller, less noticeable initiatives such as the government-wide mandate of basic energy and water conservation measures have also had a positive impact.

    The positive momentum established by these policies has also led to greater public awareness and demand for sustainable solutions, and this in turn has created new opportunities for economic growth — something that everyone would agree is vital as the country works toward recovering from the nearly two-year-old coronavirus pandemic. NTMs, even if they originally applied for a reasonable purpose and not intended to adversely affect environmental goods, simply serve as unnecessary brakes on this momentum.

    UN Escap recommends that environmental goods be given the same treatment as some essential goods during the Covid-19 pandemic, that is, exempted from most tariffs and given "fast-track" import processing to avoid NTMs that are not absolutely vital to public health, safety, or security.

    This is a good start but is an implicitly temporary solution. What it would provide, however, is time for the government to review and better coordinate trade policy and customs procedures with environmental and energy policy. Anything that encourages investment in the expansion of renewable energy, sustainable infrastructure and conservation will reap benefits for the country far into the future, and should be prioritized.

Feed by Manila Times.