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Executive must support the legislature

If the executive branch of the government supports the work of the legislative branch better, Senate work and its hearings will be much more productive.

If things don’t change, we will see this happen in two important Senate hearings that are now being scheduled. The first is on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest free trade agreement in the world. The second is on smuggling, possibly becoming worse because it is election time.

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Last Nov. 10, a Senate international relations committee hearing was held to recommend Senate ratification of RCEP. Agriculture stakeholders heard about this only a few days before. They feared a possible railroading of a trade deal that would significantly affect their lives. Since the international committee meetings of the legislated public-private Philippine Council of Agriculture and Food (whose budget for consultation had also been cut by half) had not met for two years, they argued that ratification without consultation was insensitive and irresponsible.

Opposition

Subsequently, 51 agriculture organizations signed a joint statement opposing immediate RCEP ratification. They argued that consultations should be held before a decision is made. Furthermore, our government may not yet be prepared to address the threats posed by RCEP. Countries like India deferred ratification, precisely because they stated they were not ready to handle a deluge of imports that would severely affect the lives of their farmers and fisherfolk.

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With the ongoing damage unbridled imports are already causing our own agriculture sector, why should we now embark on a possibly damaging agreement without the necessary deeper study and consultation?

In response to a formal Senate query on possible RCEP threats, the Department of Agriculture (DA) responded in a Nov. 29 letter that there were no threats.

DA stated: “As far as tariff liberalization is concerned, the concessions that were offered under RCEP are less preferential than what was committed under the Asean free trade agreements.”

However, last Jan. 1, in a published statement, Joseph Purugganan of Focus on the Global South strongly disputed this assertion. He cited threats in the areas of imports, exports and revenue loss. More study and consultation is needed to determine which view is more accurate. This is sadly lacking today.

A Cabinet official stated their goal was Senate RCEP ratification within the first two weeks of January. Before this issue goes to the legislative branch, the executive branch must exercise due diligence so that the Senate’s time is used productively.

This was requested officially in a meeting of the Philippine Council of Agriculture and Food last Jan. 5.

An Alyansa Agrikultura leader said: “Please call an international relations committee meeting as soon as possible to identify and discuss the opportunities and threats of the RCEP.”

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This is especially important because, despite several requests, this committee did not meet for two years prior to the requested Senate RCEP ratification. Agriculture stakeholders were sadly left in the dark.

Smuggling

The second hearing on the smuggling issue scheduled on Jan. 5 was postponed. This started with a privileged speech of Senate President Vicente Sotto last Dec. 6, followed by the Senate, meeting as a whole, on Dec. 14.

This may be fortunate, because the necessary executive work prior to the meeting has not been done. For example, it is still not known whether the specific measures recommended by the Federation of Free Farmers last Dec. 24 have been implemented. These will address the estimated 300,000 metric tons of smuggled rice in 2020.

Prior to the Senate hearing, the executive should now call a meeting to determine which measures were implemented and how much was saved.

On a related matter, regarding the proposed 2022 DA budget, some legislators had asked how they could argue for a significant increase when the Commission on Audit reported that the department had P22 billion in unliquidated funds in 2020.

Here again, the executive should support the legislature with the necessary explanation for this large discrepancy so that the legislators could have been guided accordingly. The reasons for noncompliance should have been explained in detail, instead of the legislators guessing what really happened.

The legislature is doing a good job. But their work, especially for their critical oversight function, lacks support and information from the executive branch. For better and more efficient governance, this must be corrected immediately.

The author is Agriwatch chair, former Secretary of Presidential programs and projects and former undersecretary of DA and DTI. Contact is [email protected]

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