The Philippine Senate has two remaining session days before it adjourns this week, to give way to the election period. It resumes session after the May elections, and from there, has nine session days to wrap up its work. In short, the window for legislation is narrow.
In this narrow window of time, the Senate intends to pass two bills that Malacañan endorses.
One is a good bill — raising the tobacco excise tax rate from the current P35 to P60 per pack in the first year, followed by a 9% annual increase to make cigarettes less affordable. The additional revenue from the increase in the tobacco tax (as well as from an increase in the alcohol tax) will be used to finance the Universal Health Care law.
The second bill, however, is a bad one. It lowers the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to 12 years old. Ostensibly this bill wants to protect children by shielding them from committing crime. But as various position papers from children’s rights groups, professional associations, academics and a wide spectrum of concerned citizens state, the bill will harm children and will not deter crime. (See, for example, “Position Paper of the UP School of Economics Alumni on HB 8858,” published by BusinessWorld on Jan. 31, 2019.)
Curiously, one veteran Senator, loud and loquacious, figures prominently in the deliberations of the above-mentioned bills. This senator is Richard Gordon.
Senator Gordon strongly opposes the good bill, the bill increasing the tobacco tax. And Senator Gordon vigorously supports the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility .
A debate on policy issues is welcome, for it helps legislators and other stakeholders in distinguishing between what is correct and what is wrong as well as recognizing the shades of gray.
The problem though, in the case of Senator Gordon, is that his arguments for both bills are without rhyme and reason.
Here are some of the things he said to defend the bad bill (lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility):
1. As to the rationale of lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to 12 years old, his answer is: “it did not work.” But he has not offered any sound evidence, including statistics, to back up his allegation. On the other hand the current law that establishes the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 15 years old is based on scientific studies that establish the age of discernment of Filipinos starts at 15 years old for schoolchildren and 17 years for out-of-school youth.
2. But Senator Gordon says that the “age of reason” begins at 7 years old. But the law is clear that the basis of establishing the minimum age of criminal responsibility is the child’s or adolescent’s ability to “discern.” Discernment requires intellectual, psychological, and emotional maturity. As a lawyer and debater, as an alumnus of the Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines, Senator Gordon should have learned the great distinction between acquiring reason and having discernment.
3. Senator Gordon makes an assurance that children in conflict with the law will not be confined. In his words, “not confinement but reformation.” He is incorrect, for the bill includes involuntary confinement that will be applied to children in conflict with the law who are sentenced, albeit the sentence is reduced. The experience in the Philippines shows that “rehabilitation center” is but the euphemism for dreaded prisons. During martial law, among the notorious prisons were the Youth Rehabilitation Center or YRC and the Ipil Youth Rehabilitation Center.
On the tobacco tax that Senator Gordon opposes, he makes the argument that the Department of Health is underspending, thus suggesting that an increase in the tobacco tax is unnecessary. In his statement, Gordon also threatens to reallocate health spending to financing the implementation of the bill on lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, which he is sponsoring.
Here is Gordon’s statement:
“Ang trabaho ninyo, kung hindi ninyo nagagastos iyan, huwag kayong manghingi. Kailangan siguruhin ninyo magagastos iyong pera. Sapagkat, sabi nga ni Secretary Diokno, within one year kailangan gastos iyong pera. Iyon ang solusyon niya, pag nagbigay ka ng budget, pero pag hindi magagawa iyan, magagalit ang tao, hindi po ba? So ang conclusion ko rito, hindi nagagastos iyong pera, nawawala pa, tapos humihingi pa tayo ngayon ng dagdag. You really have to convince me to do so. I’m for reducing cancer, lung diseases, and everything like that but if the money isn’t going to go there anyway, then you may as well give it to welfare officers who are going to be watching over our kids so that they don’t commit crime. So hindi pinag-aawayan iyong ikukulong ang bata dahil ayaw naming ikulong iyong bata. Gusto namin may welfare officer. Baka doon dapat inilagay iyong pera, doon sa mga guidance counselor.”
Again, Senator Gordon’s reasoning is flawed. That the Department of Health has underspent does not mean that its programs and projects have to suffer by having its budget diverted elsewhere. The answer to underspending is to find ways to make spending efficient. In that regard, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno has introduced a slew of reforms (reforms that his predecessor Butch Abad, intended to carry out), to attain efficiency, including the cash-based system that Gordon refers to.
All told, Senator Gordon’s shallow reasoning and worse, his lack of discernment make him an object of ridicule. May his fellow senators distance themselves from his position on the tobacco tax and juvenile justice.
May I add: Senator Gordon’s position on both issues does not have a heart. Being pro-tobacco and favoring the reduction of the minimum age of criminal responsibility harm our children.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.