The 1987 Philippine Constitution does not say the President must deliver a State of the Nation Address (popularly shortened nowadays as SONA) at the opening of the regular session of Congress. It only states that “The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.”
For whatever the noble purpose behind this constitutional mandate to address Congress when it opens for business, it seems lost in the hype and build-up by the media and naturally by the President’s own men (or women) who want him to shine and sparkle. As it turns out, the SONA becomes an annual event for pomp and ceremony, just like the state of the union address of the US President or the Speech from the Throne in the case of the British Parliament or any of the commonwealth nations which continue to consider the Queen of England as their head of state.
|Benigno Aquino III SONA composite courtesy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.|
Notice the receding hariline. Click link to read full text of President Aquino's 2013 SONA,
To me, the only sensible paragraph in President Benigno Aquino III’s long and drawn-out SONA is when he said: “Tomorrow, we are submitting to Congress our proposed 2.268 trillion-peso National Budget for 2014. I am confident of your support and advocacy for the allocation of funds which was arrived at after careful consideration. This budget is not only a continuation of our reforms, but it will also accelerate our momentum towards long-lasting inclusive progress.”
Of course, this should not be taken literally. The Constitution gives the president thirty days from opening of Congress to submit a budget of expenditures and revenues which shall be the basis of the general appropriations bill to be passed by Congress.
Thus, the SONA has become nothing but beautiful music to the President’s ears and his captured audience, thin in substance but long in aspiration and hope. In fact, there is more sense in listening to SONA’s critics for they make you appreciate the honest truth that is missing in the President’s speech. One could only continue hoping to hear the truth instead of the SONA.
President Aquino’s latest SONA is purely aspirational, a call to continue the change the President has said he has begun in transforming our society. A familiar refrain we hear every time a new President speaks before Congress: “this nation can be great again,” or “we can dream again,” etcetera.
For Noynoy Aquino to declare he is proud to be a Filipino is expected of a nation’s leader. He cannot say otherwise or else reap the ire of the people. But to say “How wonderful it is to be a Filipino in these times” is equivalent to self-denial, to whitewashing the truth with a layer of lies. That’s why it’s better to listen to SONA’s critics, you hear the real story of the nation, not the one advertised, straight from the horse’s mouth.
“How wonderful it is to be a Filipino in these times” sounds like the country’s tourism slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
Let us take apart the President’s SONA by focusing rather on the bigger issues he has tried to sell to Congress and to the people at large.
The President spoke of a strategy of maximizing opportunities for all, especially for those most in need, which he calls, “inclusive growth,” that surprisingly sounded upbeat to some although in reality is actually a mere sound bite, more like “daang matuwid.”
Financial institutions such as the World Bank and development-focused United Nations organizations, including the Asian Development Bank, have defined “inclusive growth” to be “broad based growth, shared growth, and pro-poor growth”. By this definition, inclusive growth implies an equitable allocation of resources that benefits every sector of society. It also requires the creation of an environment of equality in opportunity in all dimensions of livelihood, a platform for people who are poor to access a good standard of living. Defined simply, inclusive growth means improved living standards for all, including the poor and those vulnerable to poverty. In short, it must be socially inclusive and not only for the benefit of a privileged few such as the oligarchic elite.
The underlying premise of inclusive growth is that societies based on equality tend to perform better in development. For example, countries with more equal income distribution are likely to achieve higher rates of poverty reduction than very unequal countries.
In his SONA, President Aquino said that “widespread opportunity is the key to comprehensive and sustained progress,” not equal opportunity (repeat: not equal) which is the cornerstone of inclusive growth. He explained the exclusive nature of his concept of inclusive growth by saying that “the only ones who will be left behind are those who chose not to venture onwards with us, simply because they did not seize the opportunity.”
Clearly, Aquino’s concept of inclusive growth applies only to people who join the government’s bandwagon, those who have access to opportunity and these are the people who will benefit from his government policies and programs. Under such circumstances where opportunities may be deemed widespread but not fully accessible to all, those who are poor and vulnerable in society will never be included to benefit from the President’s policy of inclusive growth.
Those who are poor are well known for their militant opposition to government lip-service initiatives, such as poverty alleviation programs like the conditional cash transfer program, more popularly known as Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). Because the poor have lost their trust in President Aquino, they would never link up and be beholden to this program.
Aquino boasted in his SONA that there are now almost 4 million households that benefited from the program compared to 700,000 household beneficiaries when he came to office in 2010. But he forgot to mention that based on a poverty incidence of 27.9% or 26.8 million poor Filipinos and a projected population of 96.2 million in 2012, there would be an increase in the number of poor Filipinos to 3 to 4 million. This increase would wipe out the gains under Aquino’s 4Ps, implying that poor people are multiplying faster than the number of beneficiaries the government can enlist in the program.
Despite the government’s poverty alleviation program, poverty in the Philippines has remained unchanged. Not because the poor did not seize their opportunity under the Aquino administration, but because economic and income inequalities continue to persist and inclusive growth remains elusive. Even as the current administration keeps correcting and revising the official daily poverty threshold, the resulting low official poverty threshold would still show that there are currently between 38 to 68 million poor Filipino households, the worst scale of poverty in the country's history.
We can go through the litany of so-called achievements enumerated by President Aquino in his SONA one by one, and each one falls flat. Do not be mesmerized by his elocution, his ability to speak to the level of the masses, and being at home speaking in English and Pilipino. Obviously, the President has become a quick study and has now mastered the art of communication. At the end of the SONA, what remains important is the message, not the medium. The SONA is not an Oscar awards event and we don’t need commentaries on what the President wore or how he combed his thinning hair, the ternos worn by female members of Congress, and whether one needs a make-over.
Instead of SONA, our country deserves to be told the truth, not a bunch of lies or made-up statistics used to embellish the speech. Instead of pageantry and celebration, the President and Congress must buckle down to work. A simple laundry list of priority items to pursue is more than enough. Instead of wasting almost two hours of rambling before Congress, President Aquino should have told members of Congress what important legislation needs to be enacted now or sooner so he can continue the job of serving his real bosses. That, he could accomplish in less than half an hour.
Some groups critical of the Aquino administration described the first three years as “ampaw” rule, like “hollow bread with a lot of air in the middle.” According to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), a think-tank based in the University of the Philippines, three years of Aquino governance only entrenched the oligarchic elite in the country. In other words, only the elite gained from three years of Aquino leadership yet the President, never worrying if his nose stretches, calls it inclusive growth.
Other militant groups listed at least 10 lies President Aquino claimed in his SONA but which will not be printed in newspapers controlled by the President and his friends, ranging from the lie of “rapid economic growth” to the lie that the ongoing armed civil unrest has been quelled.
Cenpeg has further rebuked President Aquino’s overhyped mantra of “Kayo ang boss ko” (the masses are my boss) as a hypocritical and meaningless slogan. This time the President talks about inclusive growth, another fancy concept, but does he really mean it? Or is it another “daang matuwid” gone crooked?
Sana na lang, instead of SONA.