PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his fourth State of the Nation Address at the Philippine Congress in Quezon City. — REUTERS
It was after the first five minutes of watching the State of the Nation Address (SONA) of the President that I got confused — wondering whether I was watching a live telecast or, perhaps, due to some technical glitches, I was transported to the SONAs of previous years. But, the image of Congressman Allan Peter Cayetano in the seat of the Speaker of the House gave it away. I knew that I was watching this year’s SONA. After all, the power struggle among representatives as to who would be the Speaker of the House was a public spectacle for a couple of weeks, making it hard to miss Cayetano in the Speaker’s seat.
Traditionally, one of the measures used to gauge the address of the President is the number of times that the SONA is interrupted by applause. I noticed how sparse and tentative the applause was. I suspect it was either of two things. First, the audience could not determine the appropriate time to applaud as the President was, at certain points in the address, rambling. Second — and I have this nagging feeling that this is the reason for most, especially the members of the diplomatic corps — was that there was nothing substantive, compelling, or even new.
In my mind, a State of the Nation Address should essentially have two parts — a report on where the country is right now, thus the term “state of the nation,” and then a roadmap for where we are headed.
As expected, the President’s legislative agenda included the reinstatement of the death penalty for drug crimes and plunder. As Duterte said himself, in the three years since he assumed office he has asked Congress for this repeatedly, to no avail. Is four times going to be the charm? If you would recall, human rights groups protested the proposed restoration of the death penalty. Study upon study shows that imposing death does not deter the crime. It is the certainty of getting caught and brought to justice that makes would-be criminals think twice.
Related to this would be his soliloquy about corruption in government, starting with the recently discovered scams involving funds of PhilHealth. Some partner medical facilities have been charging PhilHealth for ghost procedures. He also repeated his challenge to citizens to be more assertive in the face of corruption, daring them to inflict physical harm and create a scandal whenever in those situations. Perhaps, damning the entire government, Duterte said that corruption is everywhere.
Also expected to be in his legislative agenda is the passage of the TRABAHO (Tax Reform for Attracting Better and Higher-quality Opportunities) Law which was stalled in the last Congress, primarily because nobody wanted to sponsor it, not after the negative publicity brought about by TRABAHO’s predecessor — the TRAIN Law. In a nutshell, the Department of Finance wants to rationalize the incentives given to investors. The come-on is lower corporate income tax.
Duterte also called for the establishment of three new departments — the Department of Overseas Filipinos, the Department of Disaster Resilience, and the Department of Water Resources, all of which seem like good ideas for they address a unique set of problems. Be that as it may, Congress would have to scrutinize the feasibility of the creation of these national government agencies. Aside from the potential negative effects of bloating the bureaucracy, serious evaluation needs to be made with respect to the current arrangements. Would they duplicate existing agencies of government? Would it be merely a change of name, level, and stature? How would the creation of these new departments address the current problems?
I, for one, am rooting for the creation of these new departments. Having these departments signals a recognition from the government that serious problems exist in the areas to be covered.
At the very least, I envision the Department of Overseas Filipinos as some sort of a one-stop-shop that will make the lives of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) easier in terms of processing their papers. Their exposure to illegal recruiters and other unscrupulous individuals and establishments is assumed to be greatly reduced. But, more than those, comprehensive and integrated developmental policies and programs should become more realistic with a centralized department.
With the Philippines constantly making it to the top of the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change and to disasters, it is certainly logical — and long overdue — to have a cabinet-level department to oversee this rather inevitable aspect of our lives. Again, if only to communicate that the government is dead (no pun intended) serious in managing disasters and their prevention, then I certainly think we are on the right track. It is high time for the national government to take charge of this, without, of course, ignoring the strides made at the local government level. The national agency can provide the unity of direction.
The need for the creation of the Department of Water Resources should not even be a matter of debate. As this year’s summer and its continuing effects on our water supply have shown, there is a critical need to look at how we use water. The United Nations General Assembly adopted in 2010 a resolution that considers access to water and sanitation as an internationally recognized human right, obligating states to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation for all, without discrimination. Included in the Sustainable Development Goals, the aim is to guarantee sustainable management of, and access to, water and sanitation for all by 2030.
In the days leading to the 2019 SONA, the much-anticipated part of the address was the President’s pronouncements on the West Philippine Sea. Duterte had mentioned on several occasions that he would educate Filipinos on the West Philippine Sea during his SONA, insisting that allowing China to trawl in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was not a violation of the Constitution. Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio thinks otherwise.
But, alas, there was no new lesson. What Duterte included in his address were the same things he has been saying all along — like a bot — including his insistence that asserting our sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea is going to lead to war with China.
And, that has caused the biggest disappointment in his SONA. After all the hype about educating us about the West Philippine Sea — after all the sound and fury — the address ended up signifying nothing, like a tale told by an idiot.
Edwin Santiago is the Executive Director of Stratbase ADR Institute.