MANILA,  July 7, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva  -  It’s now or never as far as amending the 1987 Constitution is concerned, President Arroyo said yesterday.

The President said she would not stand back and watch Charter change initiatives get stalled in the incoming 13th Congress amid differing views of legislators.

"If we place this (Charter change) in the back burner for too long, it could burn out and be lost forever," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The nation’s "future" is at stake, she said in a statement. "We have to take the opportunity within a reasonable time frame because this is a long, deliberate process," the Chief Executive said.

Because Charter change is "of national importance," the President said she will convene — sooner than later — the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) to gather early support from congressmen on her initiatives.

She added: "I will consult key stakeholders representing the people in all regions and sectors. I have complete faith that in that meeting, we would reach a consensus as to the time and manner of effecting change."

Mrs. Arroyo vowed earlier to attain a partnership between her administration and Congress in effecting reforms in the 17-year-old Constitution enacted during the term of President Corazon Aquino.

The "executive-legislative partnership," the President said, will work closely as well in carrying out the 10-point pro-poor agenda she has set out to do in the next six years.

Mrs. Arroyo, however, clarified that the order of priorities in her pushing initiatives to amend the 1987 Constitution does not conflict with her 10-point legacy program she laid down in her June 30 inaugural address.

Instead, Charter reform "will complement our 10-point agenda," she said. "It will enable the more effective and durable implementation of our anti-poverty programs." Improvement of the Constitution, the President pointed out, will put the Philippines "back in the world map" and place Filipinos "on the road to peace and prosperity permanently."

"Charter reform is our strategic hope for change," she said.

The President is expected to endorse Charter change as her priority bill when she delivers her State of the Nation Address (SONA) on the July 26 opening of the 13th Congress.

This early, lawmakers opposing Charter change are moving to thwart initiatives by administration allies. Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo and Joel Virador announced their plan to file a resolution to ask their colleagues to block moves to amend the Constitution.

On the other hand, pro-administration Sen. Juan Flavier was the first to file his proposed resolution seeking to convene a constitutional convention (con-con) as a mode of Charter reform.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the President is "open" to any proposed amendment but would leave Congress to debate on this matter.

Bunye sought anew to distance the President from speculations that the leadership of Senate President Franklin Drilon might be taken from him after the latter publicly stated his opposition to initiatives on Charter change.

Bunye reiterated Mrs. Arroyo’s policy of non-interference in "internal" matters affecting a co-equal branch of government.

Meanwhile, opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said yesterday a national referendum — on whether the 1987 Constitution should be amended or not — is unnecessary since a majority of senators and congressmen during the 12th Congress had already reached a consensus to reform the Charter.

It is also expensive.

"There are other ways of gauging the sentiments of the people on Charter change without the need for a referendum which would cost about P1 billion in taxpayers’ money," Pimentel noted.

He said a nationwide public opinion survey to be conducted by a reliable and credible survey group can substitute for a referendum.

"As duly elected representatives of the people, the senators and congressmen should discharge their task of resolving issues affecting national interest," Pimentel said.

"In my view, holding a national referendum on Charter change is superfluous because it would look like we are shirking from our responsibility and passing the buck," he said.

The only issue to be resolved now is whether to call a con-con or to convert Congress into a constituent assembly on the mode of amendment, the senator said.

The people’s views, particularly on the proposed shift to a parliamentary-federal form of government, can be gathered through consultations to be conducted by senators, congressmen and local government officials, Pimentel added.

It would be advantageous to the country if floor debates in Congress start "as early as possible," said the senator.

He assured lawmakers will not neglect urgent legislative measures even if Charter change debates are ongoing.

‘Too much focus’

But a lawmaker allied with the administration cautioned the government against focusing too much on Charter change.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. said yesterday the government needs to look more into revenue-generating measures and implement existing laws to trim the budget deficit.

Pichay, regional chairman of the administration Lakas-CMD in Caraga, said the more pressing issue now is to counter the ballooning budget deficit, which can be done by generating additional revenues through an improved tax collection system. — with Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved