Plan to divide Palawan needs a genuine debate

The Senate is reportedly set to tackle the proposal that emanated from the House of Representatives breaking up Palawan into three smaller provinces. Governor Jose Ch. Alvarez said this week he will make sure to be present in the upper chamber’s deliberations to lobby its passage.

If the measure is approved by both the House and the Senate, and fine-tuned by the bicameral conference committee, it will be up to President Duterte to sign it into law. It provides for a referendum among the citizens of Palawan to approve or disapprove the measure.

The bill aims to create three new provinces from today’s singular Palawan provincial entity, with the admnistrative boundaries drawn across the north, central and south Palawan. The City of Puerto Princesa is supposed to remain an administratively independent local government unit, classified as a highly urbanized city.

This initiative was singularly driven by the provincial government, an agenda pushed personally by Governor Jose Alvarez, on the premise that Palawan has grown to be difficult to administer and challenging to develop. Unfortunately however, there has been little to no public debate on the issue, save for random discussions it had generated in social media and several news platforms like Palawan News.

When the idea was first brought up to the public, Capitol officials promised to conduct intensive consultations in the communities about the proposal. This seemed not to have happened and if there were such consultations, there was no consolidated report that came out of it that gauged the majority sentiment and documented the issues raised on the ground.

What happened instead was grand lobby for the passage of the bill. It went through the provincial board with no genuine public debate. There were reported one-on-one closed door consultations held with the City government leadership to solicit their participation. It was fait accompli leading to the filing of the formal bill in Congress, jointly authored by Palawan’s three representatives. It breezed through the House without much fanfare, to the delight of local officials.

If the bill is signed into law by President Duterte, a referendum should be held sometime late next year. Judging from the lobbying efforts so far undertaken by the provincial leadership, it is expected to push harder for its ratification during the referendum.

The onus now is on civil society to exert an effort to foster an intelligent debate on the issue at hand, and help the population make an informed decision when they come to the polls. There remains many unaswered questions about this proposal, it’s real intentions and its overall merit. That these questions have not been adequately answered is reflected in the numerous social media posts criticizing the initiative.

Those directly involved in the lobby effort for the passage of this law have opted for the fast track instead of an open and genuine public debate. It is up to the civil society – the private sector, the academe, the youth, the NGOs – to fill in the gap before its too late.

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