As business organizations go in this country, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce (PCCI) is truly nationwide and inclusive. It has chapters all over the country. And it convenes the Philippine Business Conference (PBC) annually to discuss vital issues and problems affecting business and the economy.
The PCCI is totally different from the Makati Business Club (MBC), which is elite and exclusive, and exhibits a whiff of pretense to being the crème de la crème of our business community. MBC is confined, as its name suggests, to its citadel in Makati City.
The PCCI is also unlike the Federation of Filipino-Chinese chambers of commerce (FCCI), which is organized along ethnic lines — the Chinese kind – and is also nationwide and quite proactive.
I make these prefatory observations as a way of highlighting the significance the annual PBC of the PCCI. When the conference and the chamber organize a forum for the four active and accredited presidential candidates in the 2016 elections, it is a given that a serious candidate should take part. Any attempt to avoid the forum or dodge its questioning will become a story in itself and an issue to deal with.
Snapshots of policy agendas
At the PBC forum for presidential candidates last Tuesday, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Sen, Miriam Defensor Santiago and former Interior secretary Manuel Roxas II all confirmed their appearance and showed up.
Grace Poe confirmed her appearance at first, but then backed out, and then went to the forum late to deliver her brief statement. After posing for pictures, she declined to take questions unlike the other candidates who fielded important questions about their respective policy ideas and agendas.
Conference delegates and the media were treated to a snapshot of the policy agendas of each candidate, as each discussed their pet themes and priorities.
The initial format for the forum was to have the presidential candidates face each other in front of the business group, but the vice president requested that the candidates be asked to separately state their platforms and then answer questions from the moderator one by one.
The suggested change in format was agreed to by Roxas and Santiago.
They heard Jojo Binay discuss his strategy for poverty reduction and jobs-creation.
Binay said the target of his administration if elected would be to focus on poverty reduction by providing more jobs. He said this will be possible through supporting industries that are labor-intensive such as manufacturing and export.
They listened intently to Senator Miriam’s discussion of the importance of political stability and infrastructrue modernization to bring the country at par with all of Asean.
Santiago declared that she would support the passing of “a law authorizing the use of public funds to support dominant political parties” to create a stable political institution in the country.
She said such a program would push political parties to be accountable for the mistakes of their own candidates and leaders who will be in government positions.
Santiago also emphasized in her speech that the country needs to prepare its people by improving health and education services to ensure faster economic growth and to trickle down the effect of this. Her program would include the continuation of the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program but in a more cost-efficient way.
Roxas, for his part, vowed to sustain the country’s economic momentum and reclaim its position as a center of modernity and growth in Asia by continuing the initiatives of the Aquino administration on transparency, rules-based governance, and fighting corruption.
He said the country now has many reasons to push for “continuity” of government programs and initiatives.
When her turn came, Senator Poe vowed to increase tourist arrivals as the focus of her platform of government.
Poe emphasized the importance of the tourism industry in the country which she said would be enhanced by improving public infrastructure.
Each candidate provided an interesting spin to their programs. And each was superficial and dull in their own way.
Tax reform a priority for most
All four presidentiables spoke at some point about the need for tax reforms, particularly in lowering the corporate income tax (CIT) and personal income tax (PIT) rates.
Santiago vowed to reform the tax system within six months of her administration. Binay said he will reduce the CIT rate gradually. Poe is more concerned about the reduction of individual tax rates.
Roxas said he is open to reducing income tax rates but the initiative needs to be studied “very closely” and should be put in “very sober and non-populist” discussions — not during election time.
It looks like Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima will keep his job in a Roxas administration.
Grace Poe’s grand entrance and hasty exit
For being late and coming in the afternoon instead, independent presidential bet Sen. Grace Poe got herself a grand entrance.
Organizers almost gave up on Poe attending the forum. Poe’s office issued a last-minute advisory saying that Poe had a prior commitment, but later on indicated that Poe would head to the PBC after all, after cutting short her earlier engagement.
Poe’s “grand entrance” did not sit well with many of the business executives attending the PBC as they concluded that she was merely avoiding tough questions regarding her qualifications as president.
Although Poe delivered her prepared statement, she declined the lengthy question-and-answer portion to which her three rivals were subjected. She settled for photo shots or “selfies” with members of the audience.
Poverty is the moral issue — Binay
Binay put some urgency to his presentation when he critiqued the six years of the Aquino administration, and declared that poverty is the real moral issue that must be addressed head-on.
He contended that restrictive economic policies and political intervention in the six years of President Aquino have resulted in squandered economic opportunities.
Among the economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Binay said, the Philippines had the lowest inflow of foreign investments because the country was not equipped to receive such investments. “Our economic policies remain restrictive, discouraging start-ups, and the tax system is punitive for business,” he said.
In his statement at the forum, Binay also said poverty and not corruption is the “moral problem” of the country, and vowed to address the problem under his presidency.
This will invite the riposte that, for personal reasons, he wants to play down the corruption issue and play up the poverty card instead.
A forum, like a debate, is not a picnic. You get what you put in.
If you hide, you will be found.