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It’s the season for State-of-the-Nation-Addresses or SONAs. Everyone worth his or her salt is writing, arguing, venturing one’s own take on the SONA. The important SONA, of course, is the SONA of President Aquino, which is the constitutionally required annual report to Congress on his government’s performance and plans.

All other SONAs are usually critical of the President’s SONA or reflective of specific concerns of the issuers. Rarely does one find an alternative SONA completely in accord with that of the sitting President.

So, what does one expect from next Monday’s official SONA. Certainly, it will contain glowing statistics and accomplishments, probably the top one on the achievements of the macro economy (growth rate, investment climate, credit ratings, etc) and on anti-corruption (filing of cases and arrests of big fishes, Corona impeachment reforms in procurement and other bureaucratic processes, etc.).

There will be claims of progress in anti-poverty work, but this would be muted as there is as yet  no discernible–more so, dramatic–achievement to crow about. Asset reforms are a bit more problematic, with land reform in the doldrums, entire communities still losing their forests, fishing grounds, and prime agricultural lands, and even their very environment (clean water, clear air, and open spaces) to powerful and greedy carpetbaggers, and entire industries continuing to be monopolized by a few billionaires.

The record so far of the Aquino government centers on making the entire economy work, establishing a corruption-resistant government. However, the impression on the ground, except maybe for the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), the beneficiaries had been the wealthy elite, and not the vast majority that is the poor.

However, since the Aquino government has only completed one-third of its shelf-life, the poor are still giving it the chance to make good on the inaugural promise of “delivering the benefits of democracy to the people.” At this point in our history, “the people” is almost synonymous with “the poor.” Only an agenda for the poor is relevant in the coming SONA.

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[This is my Catalyst column in the aftermath of the second Aquino SONA]

The second Aquino State of the Nation Address (SONA) has come and gone. Its initial hype was coined as a guidepost for “social transformation.” The report was written and delivered entirely in Filipino, affirming its audience as the ordinary Filipino, referred to by President Aquino as his “bosses.” The heavy back-referral to the “Wang-wang” symbolism underlined his value approach to “social transformation.”

In the end, the SONA speech heavily emphasized an anti-corruption solution, from strengthening the anti-corruption institutions, appointing incorruptible people, to appeals for an anti-corruption cultural value change among government people and ordinary citizens. The speech emphasized the responsibilities of those in power as public servants beholden to and serving the people. The crusade against the “Wang-wang” mindset of government leaders throughout the SONA was deliberate in emphasizing this core transformation of leadership and government culture.

The speech fleshed out the Aquino campaign slogan of “No corruption, no poverty.” It thus defined its “Straight road” as basically conducting a good governance exercise, based on the rules of transparency, accountability, and service to the people. Repeatedly, it presented the first year accomplishments as a realization of the “Straight road.”

Well and good. However, it falls far short of the standards for genuine social transformation. The most glaring lack is the dearth of the political reforms that should have formed the backbone of such transformation. It does not speak of transforming the levers of economic and political power in favor of the vast majority of the people and replacing the current traditional politics that rely heavily on the “guns, goons, and gold” of political warlords and political dynasties. Strengthening the democratic institutions such as the political party system, elections and electoral management, judicial system, and the mass media, surprisingly, has been paid niggardly attention in the speech.

The heavy emphasis on value transformation is no different from the countless moral crusades of the past—which all failed because of the refusal to undertake basic reforms of the social system. The message is dangerously close to being a mere sop to the poor and the reform constituency that elected Aquino to power. Even without mention, the sacrificial wolf here is the Arroyo family and its coterie of cronies. It thereby impliedly absolved the other economic and political culprits who have conveniently (and opportunely) transferred their allegiance to the winning Aquino administration.

Certainly, there are reform measures mentioned in the speech, ranging from the oft-cited Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to small reforms in government delivery of social services, rules in business conduct, modernization of the armed forces and the police, to Marcos human right victims compensation. However, again, there is a glaring non-mention of highly-visible reform measures such as those in the areas of reproductive health, freedom of information, political party strengthening, and land use and land reform implementation. The speech was loudly silent on the need for charter change.

If social transformation is to be used as a yardstick for judging the SONA, then it dismally fails the standards for basic reforms, let alone the fundamental ones. It speaks, rather, of palliative reforms, cosmetic reforms, and values reforms. In the end, it speaks to the social and political elite to behave and treat the teeming poor as equals or—in the case of public officials—as their servants. Democracy is guaranteed in the Aquino tradition but it is not the content of the social transformation hyped as the roadmap of the Benigno Aquino III administration.

The people, then, need to realize for themselves the blessings of democracy. Aquino will not do it for them.

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The Aquino administration has come out with 12 priority bills which it presented before the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC). There is supposed to be 11 bills more in the process.

According to a report from the GMA7 news on the matter, the following bills are:

“I. Human Development

1. An Act creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHUD), defining the mandates, powers and functions, providing funds therefore, and for other purposes

2. An Act rationalizing the night work prohibition on women workers, thereby amending Articles 130 and 131 of Presidential Decree # 442 as amended, otherwise known as the Labor Code of the Philippines

3. An Act enhancing the curriculum and increasing the number of years for basic education, appropriating funds therefore and for other purposes

4. An Act providing a definite targeting strategy in identifying the poor, amending republic act no. 7875, otherwise known as The National Health Insurance Act of 1995 as amended, and for other purposes

II. Infrastructure Development

5. An Act further amending certain sections of republic act no. 6957, as amended by Republic Act No. 7718, Entitled “An Act authorizing the financing, construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure projects by the private sector, and for other purposes,” appropriating Funds for the said purpose, and for other purposes

III. Economic Development

6. An Act rationalizing the grant and administration of fiscal incentives for the promotion of investments and growth, and for other purposes

IV. Sovereignty, Security and Rule of Law

7. An Act to establish the archipelagic sea lanes in the philippine archipelagic waters, prescribing the rights and obligations of foreign ships and aircrafts exercising the right of archipelagic sea lanes passage through the established archipelagic sea lanes and providing for the associated protective measures therein

8. An Act to define the maritime zones of the Republic of the Philippines

9. An Act to strengthen the modernization of the Armed Forces of The Philippines, extending the implementation of the modernization program of the AFP, instituting necessary reforms in the AFP, amending for the purpose certain provisions of Republic Act No. 7898, otherwise known as the AFP modernization act and for other purposes

10. An Act resetting the date of the regular elections for elective officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Synchronizing the ARMM Elections with the synchronized national and local elections 2013, amending for the purpose Republic Act No. 9333, Entitled “An Act Affixing the Date for Regular Elections for Elective Officials of the ARMM Pursuant to RA 9054″ Entitled “An Act to Strengthen and Expand the Organic Act for the ARMM, amending for the purpose RA 6734, Entitled An Act Providing for an Organic Act for the ARMM, as Amended,” and for other purposes

V. Good Governance

11. An Act instituting reforms in land administration

12. An Act to promote financial viability and fiscal discipline in Government-Owned or Controlled Corporations and to strengthen the role of the state in its governance and management to make them more responsive to the needs of public interest and for other purposes.”

A cursory examination of the bills showed that there is nothing fundamental or even major reform in terms of their content and direction. They are, more or less, consistent with the stated thrusts of the new president against corruption and poverty . They are also consistent with the strategy for public-private partnership (PPP) enunciated in his inauguration and state of the nation address last year.

These bills are suspect until the new administration spells out its entire governance framework. Even the publication of the forthcoming 2011-2015 Philippine Development Plan will not be enough. The Plan is a secondary document as far as all administrations before it are concerned. The present Aquino administration has so far indicated it will not treat it differently–merely a  recommendation to its own plan–whatever it will be.

What is troubling is that the bills may turn out to be either 1) political accommodations; 2) a sell-out of natural and public resources and the regulatory capture by the wealthiest local business elites and big foreign and international business interests; and 3) only an empty sop to the long-suffering poor. I hope not, but the choices of priority bills are troubling.

The list of reform bills not in the list are glaring. Among these are 1) the political party reform bill–important for setting new rules for political contestation, sans the politics of guns, goons, and gold; 2) the freedom of information bill–important for transparency and accountability in government; 3) the reproductive health bill–important for responsible family planning; 4) Marcos human rights victim compensation bill–important for giving long-delayed justice for Marcos victims; and 5) bills on small and medium enterprise development, particularly in rural areas and regions outside Metro Manila–important for job creation.

As it is, there is no evident political will in the priority bills for democratic political and asset reforms. If this trend continues, the Aquino administration is in danger of slipping towards a regime of slick, high-profile populism with neither substantive impact on poverty and people empowerment nor concrete reforms that strengthens democracy.

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It is more than 30 days since President Noynoy Aquino assumed the presidential office–more than third of the traditional 100-day honeymoon supposedly accorded a new president. It is a worrying trend that the pace has not been as fast as one would expect from a presient with a reform  agenda.

One, not all key appointments, especially at the secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary, and key director levels, are finished. This basically creates vacuums in many departments, bureaus, and specialized agencies. In addition, some of the appointments seems questionable, from the point of view of the reform agenda itself and its main subject matter, corruption in high levels of government.

Two, we have been titillated with accounts and stories of corruption or mismanagement in government but precious few action-oriented directives. The Truth Commission has not yet been constituted although it is supposed to  be a key component of the anti-corruption priority.

Three, many aspects of the development framework or the program of governance are still missing or at least not known by the broad public. These were supposed to be articulated in the State of the Nation Address last July 26 but the President chose to concentrate on his most important priorities. The unspoken ones have yet to be heard such as his policy on the impending power crisis, climate change, environmental issues, land reform, human rights violations, and exploitation of mining and oil resources.

There is also the enormous problem of the various appointments, laws, executive orders, policies, and projects that the GMA administration left behind that not only eat up into the government resources but actually block his own agenda and program. These have to be address immediately and surely.

The slow pace may eat into the admittedly huge political capital that President Aquino accumulated in the last electoral contest. however, it may also encourage the political opposition to highlight the deficiencies of the administration–even if these were actually inherited from the Arroyo and earlier administrations.

The least one can expect is that President Noynoy Aquino  can complete his plan, resources, and manpower in the first 100 days and may therefore be in a position to meet head-on the political landmines and the challenges of normal governance his administration face.

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President Noynoy Aquino’s 2010 SONA concentrated on the themes of integrity of leadership, good governance, and clean and honest government. For most people who are tired of the politicians’ shenanigans, this is enough and probably form the basis for their hopes and expectations from the new government.

There are comments, including mine, that the SONA –particularly as a first SONA–lacked a great many things, including a new development framework, policies on burning issues in environment and ecology, rural poverty and land reform, human rights, political reforms, and social justice, and definitive solutions to the specific corruption problems he enumerated.

The SONA is correct in its exposé of the previous administration’s corruption and in its emphasis on clean and honest government, good governance, and leadership by example. It may turn out that these are all that’s needed to start off a sustainable partnership between his administration and the people. Still, this is only a governance policy framework, not a complete development framework.

As the first SONA, it missed the opportunity to lay down its full policy for the next six years. There are too many gaps–it will be necessary to closely monitor each and every presidential decision to discern the Aquino administration’s eventual policy directions.

Those who hope for more systemic reforms and a substantive change in terms of government policy in various areas of governance cannot find them in the SONA. As it is, the SONA has more rhetorics than substance. It remains to be  seen if the reality of an Aquino government defines a bright future for the people or will dash the last hopes of battered generations.

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For all the use of Pilipino and simple language (which should be lauded), President Noynoy Aquino’s State of the Nation Address is a disappointing one. It it a member of the elite talking to the people, promising an honest and clean government. Yet, it is THE problem. The elite–on both sides of the political aisle–have been promising this each time it is in power.

The economic program in the SONA boils down to this: We attract investors, we privatize government assets, and we turn the government to serve the needs of investment and capital. Their investments will produce jobs and poverty will be solved.  Yet this is THE problem. The reality is that it is the Big Business–both foreign and local–which benefits from this arrangement. Not the medium and small business. Not, of course, the poor people who cannot begin to pay the astronomical bills profit-oriented and formerly government-controlled services foist on them. Witness the water bill, electricity bill, the toll fee, etc.

Noynoy Aquino expects the policies of the traditional political elite to solve the nation’s and people’s poverty? What it would mean, in reality, is the continued widening–even accelerating–gap between the poverty of the poor and the riches of the rich. His economic advisers are selling him short on this one.

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As expected, the more interesting things in the just-concluded State Of the Nation Address (SONA) of president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came from between the lines, her body language and events surrrounding it. All of these basically say that she’s not contemplating national unity, reconciliation with her critics and political enemies, nor stepping down from power. She tantalizingly mentioned “determination”–which she herself acknowledged that other people may term “dictatorship”–as a guiding policy of her regime.

By stating that “I never expressed the desire to extend myself before my term,” she left open the possibility that she may do so in the future. By singling out each major presidentiable for snide remarks, she indirectly put herself in the ring with them. Considering that she cannot run anymore in the 2010 elections, this leaves only the possibility for charter change. She hints in the SONA that she will contend for power with them, not necessarily through elections. The not-so-subtle message of her full red gown is: GMA is ready to fight!

The SONA definitely is not a swan song, nor is it a unifying call, nor one of a legacy speech. It sounds like a campaign speech, a call to arms, or an act of throwing down a gauntlet. Is this simply a way to ward off the image of a lameduck presidency or a preparation for a real move towards a strong-woman rule? Is this the end of Vice-President Noli de Castro’s presidential option?

The SONA hints but does not say. Swift events after today will answer these. What it does say is that GMA does not want to leave the political scene.

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