, February 16, 2006, (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang said yesterday it was ready to defend the disbursements of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) taken from the Marcos funds and maintained that all fund releases were aboveboard and in no way connected to President Arroyo’s election campaign in 2004.

Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor and Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, in separate statements, said the administration had nothing to hide as far as the DAR’s fund releases weeks prior to the May 2004 elections were concerned.

"There is no money taken from government coffers and put into pockets," Defensor said in a telephone interview. "There is documentation and they (senators) can easily trace where all the money went."

Defensor said the senators may be "well-meaning in their inquiries but records will bear us out."

Bunye said the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) "has a record of all disbursements, which were released in accordance with the law and established procedures."

Defensor, who was the President’s campaign spokesman during the May 2004 polls, said they are confident they can defend the disbursements and that the Palace remains unperturbed by reported findings of discrepancies by the Commission on Audit (COA).

If the COA makes a final report saying there were indeed anomalies in the DAR’s fund releases, they would then move to have those involved prosecuted, Defensor assured.

In the case of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which he earlier headed, Defensor said fund releases to the agency were properly documented. The DENR is in charge of land patents.

He said the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), which Mrs. Arroyo chairs, only deals with policy and legal issues and is not involved in its day-to-day operations.

"The PARC is a council and is not involved in operational details," Defensor stressed.

He added that it would be unfair to the administration if senators assign malice to the DAR’s activities and disbursements during the election period.

He said programs and services rendered to farmers by the government like housing, health and even agrarian reform should not be suspended or halted just because there is an upcoming election.

"The delivery of basic services should continue without pause. You cannot stop governance or the implementation of programs just because of elections," Defensor said.

People’s initiative drive shifts to higher gear By Evelyn Macairan The Star 02/16/2006

The voice of the people has been raised and it is calling for Charter change.

Some 10,000 representatives from various sectors of society kicked off a nationwide campaign to amend the 1987 Constitution and to call for the establishment of a unicameral parliamentary form of government yesterday morning.

Local officials led representatives from fisherfolk, indigenous people’s, veterans, the elderly, disabled, students, overseas workers, farmers and women’s groups at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium in Malate, Manila for the signing of what is now called the "Manila Declaration."

The "Sigaw ng Bayan: Pagbabago ng Saligang Batas Ngayon Na!" event seeks reforms in the country’s fundamental laws.

They said a unicameral parliamentary form of government should be established and the liberalization of the economy should be conducted through constitutional reforms to achieve greater government efficiency and bring about sustained economic prosperity for the Filipino people.

According to the Manila Declaration, "the present political system is in disarray. Congress is hog-tied in a paralyzing legislative gridlock."

The declaration also said "vital legislative measures, like the national budget, cannot be passed thereby undermining the delivery of urgent and basic services to our people. This is the greatest injustice the bicameral system has done to our country and people."

It said "this political debacle and the reckless escalation by various conspiracies to bring down the government are clear and real threats."

"Enough and enough. The point of no return is here. The time to amend the Constitution is now," the Manila Declaration read.

The sectoral groups expressed support for an immediate shift from a bicameral to a unicameral and parliamentary form of government and the liberalization of the economy as proposed by the presidential consultative commission (con-com) on Charter change.

However, they said, there should be massive information dissemination, particularly through consultations and dialogues with the public, on the proposed changes to the 18-year-old Constitution that will clearly explain the meaning and implications of each amendment.

The Manila Declaration signatories also pledged they would lobby with local and national government officials and the private sector for effective advocacy forums on Charter change.

The Constitution allows amendment through constitutional convention, constituent assembly or a people’s initiative.

As this developed, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. questioned the legality of incoming Department of the Interior and Local Governments Secretary and outgoing Antipolo Rep. Ronaldo Puno’s meetings with the DILG’s regional and city directors to push for a people’s initiative to carry out Charter change.

Puno denied meeting with DILG officials over the matter of Charter change. — With Marvin Sy

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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