SONA 2015


Perhaps just as important, or even more important, as the first State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Benigno S. Aquino III will deliver on Monday, July 27, 2015 his sixth and last address to a Joint Session of Congress and the nation.

          Now is the time for deep reflection as well as forward thinking.  As Members of the House of Representatives who either came to office just as President Aquino was sworn in (in the case of Reps. Romeo Acop and Leopoldo Bataoil) or came into the second half of his term (in the case of Reps. Samuel Pagdilao, Gary Alejano, and Ashley Acedillo), we both must reflect on the tone set by PNoy in his inaugural speech last June 30, 2010 in Luneta, reiterated in his first SONA in July 2010, and his midterm report by way of the third SONA last July 2012.

          Kapag walang corrupt, walang mahirap and Bawal ang utak wang-wang were the battle cries, while the policy guideposts were inclusive growth and that our citizens came first (Kayo ang boss ko).  These of course resonated and set the tone of good governance and public service for the rest of the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary.  But the private sector pitched in, too.

          In the assumption speech, the yet-unnamed bill (which became the BBL or the Bangsamoro Basic Law and now the BLBAR or Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region) seeking a lasting peace agreement in Mindanao figured prominently in Pres. Aquinos priorities.  He followed this up during his first SONA with a legislative agenda for Congress that included the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, amendments to the Procurement Law, Anti-Trust Law, National Land Use Bill, National Defense Act, Whistleblowers' Bill, and the Witness Protection Program.  Pres. Aquino also sought various inquiries into the Calamity Fund, anomalies in the National Power Corp., the National Food Authority, the Metro Rail Transit, the Road User's Fund, negotiated contracts, bloated salaries of the board of members in the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS).

          Midway through his term, President Aquino highlighted in his third (2012) SONA that other controversies like exorbitant perks for GOCCs, the PAGCOR ‘coffee scam, and second-hand helicopters sold to PNP as brand-new needed addressing. 

          In that same speech, he lamented the fact that 45% of policemen had no guns and promised to add 74,600 new guns for the police force.  There was also a pitch for AFP modernization in the form of hi-tech and better quality patrol ships, helicopters, radio and communication equipment, and light aircraft.  PNoy talked tough on our territorial dispute with China, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.  The Philippines, PNoy said, will protect and uphold its national sovereignty and territorial authority.

          It did not take long for the President to deliver on his promise to the PNP.  IN 2013, brand new firearms in the form of 22,600 Glock 17 pistols were turned over to the police, with the promise of 52,000 more coming their way.  This was on top of the promised 2,500 patrol vehicles and 40,000 units of handheld radios.  So far, a total of 1,470 Mahindra Bolero jeeps are on their way to various PNP units for use in their crime fighting and police visibility operations.  Thousands of brand new handheld radios have also been distributed to the PNP regional and national support units in numbers nearing the total distribution target as set forth by the President.

          With the perceived failure of the 15-year (1996-2011) AFP Modernization Program laid down by Republic Act 7898, this administration pursued another 15-year modernisation effort through RA 10349.  With this new law, divided into three 5-year periods (called Horizons 1 to 3), President Aquino committed to spend 90.1 billion pesos for the first five years from 2013 to 2017.  So far, he has supported the AFPs modernization with an allocation of 19 billion pesos.  Among the notable big-ticket items under this commitment are the FA-50 lead in fighter-trainer from Korea, 8 combat utility helicopters (Bell 412), the Navys AW 109 Power helicopters for anti-submarine warfare.  Also forthcoming are three radars, two long-range patrol aircraft and two brand new Navy frigates.

          The AFP, PNP, Bureau of Fire Protection, Coast Guard, and other uniformed services got a slight boost as their subsistence allowance was increase from 2,700 pesos to 4,500 pesos a month.

          Beyond the catchphrases, have our government officials and the rest of the citizenry taken the fight against corruption and abusive behavior to heart?  This is a hard question to answer, as the answer needs a bit of quantifying.

          So far, the Presidents anti-corruption campaign have landed one former Chief Justice impeached and one Court of Appeals Justice dismissed, three Senators in detention, implicated about a dozen or so former and serving congressmen, and in short order either arrest warrants or plunder cases against several other government officials are forthcoming - not least among them the second highest official of the land.

          The effort to inquire into the calamity funds, the Napocor, the Road Users Fund, and the MWSS have been sidelined by the recurring and repeated problems besetting the Metro Rail Transit and the importation of rice under the National Food Authoritys supervision.

          The government, through Congress, did rein in on the government corporations by passing Republic Act 10149 or the GOCC Governance Act of 2011.  The Office of the Ombudsman brought the hammer down on those involved in the second-hand chopper deal of the PNP and sent several high police officials to jail.

          The BBL or BLBAR is still being hotly-debated in the lower House - and even assuming it passes the lower chamber - still faces a tough challenge in the Senate (both instances due in large part to the catastrophe that was Mamasapano).  So far, the 16th Congress has been able to pass some economic measures like an anti-trust law (the Philippine Fair Competition Act), cabotage law, the establishment of the Marina as the single maritime administration for seafarers, a law allowing full entry of foreign banks into the country, and the MSME (micro, small, and medium enterprises) law.

          Legislation to strengthen the rule of law came in the form amendments to the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 and to Pres. Decree 1606 (strengthening the Sandiganbayan).

          Moving on to our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)[1], there was low progress in poverty reduction, despite the high economic growth in recent years.  While income poverty, based on the official poverty thresholds, has declined from 34.4 percent in 1991 to 25.2 percent in 2012, this is still far from the MDG target of 17.2 percent by 2015.  Inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) in the urban areas but rose in the rural areasThere has been little improvement in the distribution of income.  Inequality has gone down slightly at the national level but remains high.

          The recent economic growth has not translated to lower unemployment. In fact, the unemployment rate has been flat at around 7 percent since 2011, which many regard as the economic phenomenon calledjobless growth[2]. The 7.1 percent unemployment rate in 2013, sadly, translates to 2.9 million unemployed persons.  In addition to access to jobs, the quality of available jobs has not been adequate to address the poverty situation.

          The countrys malnutrition rate of 20.2 percent in 2011 remains far from the target rate of 13.6 percent in 2015[3].

            The Philippines is likely to meet its target of universal access to primary education, largely through greater resource allocation to the education sector[4].  Although the backlogs in classrooms have largely (although not yet totally) been addressed, the need for more teachers and better books present daunting challenges.  It is worth noting that the cohort survival and completion rates are still low and the quality of education still needs to be improved.  Many quarters believe that with the full implementation of the K-12 system (Republic Act 10533 or the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013) cohort survival and completion rates will again take a severe it, as many of our public schools are still not ready for K-12.  It remains to be soon, too, whether the quality of education will also improve as a result of K-12. 

          Infant and under-five mortality rates have been reduced and the targets will likely be achieved by 2015[5].  It must be noted, however, that neonatal mortality shall continue to be a concern as long as mothers either have limited or no access to proper facilities for child delivery.

          Improvements in morbidity and mortality rates associated with malaria have been since as 27 provinces have been declared as malaria- free in 2012, from only 13 provinces in 2004[6]. Similarly, the incidence, prevalence and mortality rates associated with tuberculosis (TB) have declined considerably, although TB is still one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the country. On the other hand, the number of new HIV cases has been increasing, mitigated only by the fact that HIV prevalence is still estimated to be less than one percent of the population[7].

          The country has already surpassed its target of reducing by half the proportion of people with no access to basic sanitation. It is very likely to meet its target with regards access to safe water by 2015[8].

          With several high-profile successes, the Aquino administration can be said to have brought the country to a better place than it was in 2010, with still a little less than a year to cap off all of its achievements.  But with these gains, several headline-grabbing debacles and miscues loom large that would tend to overshadow what would have otherwise been a stellar six-year term.

            The governments ability to manage different crises drew a lot of flak in such episodes as the Luneta hostage-taking, the Lahud Datu incursion of the MNLF-supported Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Zamboanga siege (and the concomitant humanitarian crisis it generated), the staggering number of preventable casualties from Super Typhoon Yolanda, and the carnage at Mamasapano.

            The pitch for Daang Matuwid took a big blow when the Supreme Court ruled against the policy of disbursement acceleration (DAP) and, as a fallout of the Napoles scam, invalidated Congresspork barrel under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).  From many indications, the Presidents confrontational stance against the Supreme Court regarding DAP and Congressuncharacteristic silence on the PDAF ruling did not help either the Executive nor the Legislature.

          Attributable to probably a combination of poor planning, project implementation, and weak enforcement of the nations laws, the countrys commuting and riding population have suffered from frequent breakdowns (even mishaps) of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and - according to one 2012 JICA study - two billion pesos in daily productivity losses due to a massive and intractable traffic problem in the metropolis that hosts approximately 14% of the daytime population of the entire country.  Even a project management problem like the bidding and supply of car plates becomes a national issue - there are approximately between 7 to 8 million motor vehicles (MV)[9] in a country of almost 100 million, 28% of which (or an estimated 1.96 to 2.24 million MV in 2014) are in the National Capital Region.

          The perceived and actual weakness in the enforcement of our laws and ordinances can no more be illustrated than the latest controversy involving the importation of almost a hundred container vans containing various solid waste from Canada.  That both the Canadian company, Chronic Plastics, and the Philippine importer Live Green Enterprises were able to process documents to ship such amount of garbage spanning the years 2013-2014; that several of these container vans slipped past the Bureau of Customs and land in an export zone like Subic; and worse, 26 of such vans of garbage ended up getting disposed of in the Presidents home province of Tarlac no less - these speak volumes in terms of the holes and gaps in our regulatory and law enforcement agencies.

          The Aquino administration displayed great insight and expansive scope in pursuing its cross-cutting development strategies of Social Development and Protection, Infrastructure Development, Financial Inclusion, Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources, Stable National Security, Macroeconomic Stability and Good Governance[10].  It should strong political will in pursuing the impeachment of a sitting Chief Justice despite initial great odds.  The same political will - at great risk to political capital - was demonstrated in seeing through Congress a painful revenue measure like the law on sin tax reform (which arguably saved the economy in raising much-needed revenues) or controversial policies promoting reproductive health and education reform (via the K-12 law).

          With the remaining time that Congress has to pass measures through its legislative mill, plus whatever is left of the Presidents political capital which - no doubt - still has its reserves, it would be worthwhile to marshall both these institutionspolitical will to finally put into law the following:

1)      A National Defense and Security Act (or at least a law that establishes a National Security Planning Framework or National Security Strategy document);

2)     National Land Use Plan;

3)     Setting the final Forest Limits;

4)     Creation of the Department of Information and Communication Technology, Department of Urban Housing Development, Emergency Management Agency (or a full-time disaster management department), Philippine Transportation Safety Board (to independently investigate land, marine, air transport, rail and pipeline accidents), and the Philippine Transport Safety Authority;

5)     Reforms in land valuation and the creation of a Land Registration and Administration Authority (LARA);

6)     A poverty reduction program to replace conditional cash transfers and institutionalize Social Entrepreneurship as an Education and Poverty-Reduction (SEEP) strategy;

7)     Freedom of Information (FOI) Act; and

8)     the Anti-Dynasty Bill.

          To paraphrase an early 20th century President[11], Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficultyIt might have been easier to envy a President who served his term during easy times.  But rather envy a great many Presidents who led under difficult times and led them well.

          We have desisted from giving an overall rating to the President simply because, in all honesty and fairness, such an assessment must include the performance of both House of Congress as well.  And that would be tantamount to self-rating which can neither be objective or unbiased.

          And so, whether or not President Benigno Simeon Aquino III shall stand with the giants of Philippine history, or not, remains to be seen.  Only history and the Filipino people shall be the sole, and final, judge.    

No comments: