POSTSCRIPT / May 18, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Tariff-cut savings to go to oil firms or to people?

FOR WHOM?: President Gloria Arroyo has issued Executive Order 527 reducing the tariff on crude oil and refined petroleum products from three percent to between two and zero percent. The intention, she said, is to cushion the impact of rising oil prices on the economy and consumers.

The question of a badly scarred public is: How sure are we that ALL the savings from tariff cuts will translate to lower retail prices for consumers and not to bigger profits for the oil firms?

With the oil industry having been deregulated by law — meaning the government cannot dictate prices — will the administration force the oil companies to pass on to consumers their entire tariff savings in terms of lower pump prices?

Maybe the administration has an airtight scheme to force oil companies to pass on to consumers ALL their savings from tariff reduction. If such a scheme is in place, Malacanang better show it to the consumers at least for their peace if mind.

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VAT HIJACKED?: At the height of the campaign last year for congressional approval of an expanded Value-Added Tax, Malacanang said the additional revenue — including the two percent tacked on last January to raise the VAT rate to 12 percent — will be used for education, health and other essential services.

Did the government really dedicate VAT increases to finance public services, as promised?

As I understand it, VAT collections go straight to the general fund and not to a trust fund for the essential services that Malacanang dangled before taxpayers to hypnotize them into accepting a wider and higher VAT.

This is one of the reasons why many of us are skeptical whenever the administration says it intends to do this or to attend to that.

To mend its tattered credibility, the administration may want to show that all collections from the expansion of the VAT base and the raising of the rate to 12 percent have been going exclusively to essential services, as promised.

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ACCUSER & JUDGE: The whole mining industry is awaiting with bated breath what a bishop, an unabashed anti-mining advocate, has to say about Lafayette’s mining project in Rapu Rapu, Albay.

I am referring to Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon, who is chairman of the presidential Rapu Rapu Fact-Finding Commission that is supposed to hand in its report to President Arroyo tomorrow.

The bishop handpicked the members of his commission that has been branded as a “deadly combination” of the Left and the anti-mining lobby. Its composition has not sat well with the local governments of Albay and Sorsogon.

Worse, being now part of government, the Bastes commission uses taxpayers’ money. As such, will the commission be fair, having in mind public interest? Or will most of its members be guided by their respective biases?”

Whatever the commission says will have a profound effect on mining in general. And since mining, responsible mining that is, is the key to unlocking the wealth of the countryside, this report will have a bearing on the lives of the rural poor.

Will rural Filipinos have jobs and a better life? Or will those whose ministry has extended to loving not just the flock but the environment as well condemn them to poverty and hunger, and make them and their children easy prey to recruitment by the Left and the flesh trader?

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PALACE HANDLING: Foreign investors are watching how the government, particularly the Executive Branch, will handle the Bastes commission’s report.

Many of them would like to know, for instance, if a company like Lafayette that has been penalized, fined, and shut down for two mine spills last October would be allowed to redeem itself after meeting all the conditions imposed and following the rules.

Many lawyers will jump on this legally and socially interesting case. The laws say a miscreant must be punished and be allowed to reform regardless of the beliefs or biases of a few men sitting in judgment.

Internally in the commission, one interesting point revolves around the weight of the opinion of its chairman vis-à-vis the consensus of the rest of the body and objective public interest.

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IMPLICATIONS: The Lafayette issue is bigger than the company itself.

It will define the limits of the influence of a man of the cloth in legal, political, and social matters when he is given the chance to participate in an act of government.

The case puts into sharper focus the poverty and hunger that have been driving rural folk into the embrace of insurgency, white slavery, and crime.

We might also mention in this regard the plight of overseas Filipino workers, because that in itself is a reflection on the government’s poor record in creating opportunities in the home country.

It will also put President Arroyo herself to the test. Just about everyone in the mining industry knows that Bastes got the mandate to look into the Lafayette issue on Jan. 30 in Malacanang, when bishops broke bread with the Chief Executive, when she was at her weakest political point.

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BALANCING ACT: The issue will be a make-or-break for the Left and anti-mining groups in terms of credibility.

If the Bastes report is perceived to be biased and unsubstantiated, the anti-mining group will lose what little public support it has. Having realized the value of responsible mining, many people are looking forward to seeing the mining industry come in a big way in rehabilitating the country.

One problem of Bastes is that he has come out as anti-mining. Some observers are disturbed that the bishop who heads the fact-finding commission has already expressed his biases against mining.

As he now sits in effect as accuser and judge of Lafayette, he may drag down the entire commission — not to mention the industry and even the Palace — in case his biases get the better of him.

Bastes has said on video that mining should not be allowed in the country. He also said when he went to Rapu Rapu before the commission was organized: “You probably heard that the seas of Sorsogon are dead because of mining… the effects of Lafayette mining. Our fish are no longer edible.…”

Lafayette, under its new management, said it has met all the conditions set by the government and needs to test them to make sure they work properly. It said it would use only water and no chemicals.

The Bastes Commission balked, saying it would be like experimenting with people’s lives. Lafayette said the commission can attend the tests and bring its experts. Still no go.

By refusing the tests, the commission looks like it had painted itself into a corner.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 18, 2006)

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