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President Aquino on Monday delivered the third State of the Nation Address of his administration, as expected detailing a long list of claimed economic and political accomplishments as well as targets for the rest of his six-year term.
In a one-and-a-half hour presentation, the President stressed indicators for an economy on the upswing: declining unemployment, higher foreign direct investments, rising tourism, and key accomplishments in social programs for attacking chronic shortages in schools, hospitals, the police, and the military.
In a flood of feel-good information, however, there were key items that merited practically zero-mentions.
Most notably, Mr. Aquino said nothing about a proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) law, likely frustrating legislators and civil society advocates that had long counted on the President's avowed campaign for good governance and transparency to finally see the legislation through, after 14 years in the legislative mill.
Other notable non-mentions: RH Bill, ICT, and Charter Change.
Apart from a glancing reference to "responsible parenthood," the President also made no real effort to address or signal a strong position on Reproductive Health, which remains opposed by the influential Catholic Church.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, in an ambush interview, said he did not think that Aquino's statement on responsible parenthood amounted to an endorsement of the RH bill.
The President made only two categorical pitches in terms of legislative priorities: passage of the sin tax and legislation to institutionalize better revenue sharing and other reforms in the mining sector.
At the start of his speech, Mr. Aquino ticked off the gains in the economy that showed, he said, that none of it was a fluke: the 6.4-percent GDP growth in the first quarter, eight credit rating upgrades, robustness in the stock market, the continued inflow of investments, and the healthy fiscal balance.
He then listed marked improvements in bridging gaps in education, health and social services.
He also noted the slow but steady modernization of the Armed Forces, that previous administrations the past 15 years have barely addressed.
Against all of this, however, what made the non-inclusion of any discussion on FOI even more glaring were the stronger positions taken by Congress itself.
Earlier in the day, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile had called on the Senate to prioritize the FOI bill, among other pending legislative proposals.
"One of those rights relate to our peoples’ right to information and our Constitution’s mandate for a transparency in government. Discussion on the Freedom of Information Bill, which we now call People’s Ownership over Government Information (POGI) under Senate Bill No. 3208, is important because it will establish the guiding policy to the public’s access to basic information about the government operations. The Senate has previously legislated better access to public bidding by requiring government agencies to post bidding notices in the internet. The POGI bill expands the area in which we can make governments more accountable to their constituencies.
"It is the assumption in this bill that Juan dela Cruz, as a citizen and taxpayer, is entitled to know how much of public funds are paid for what," Enrile said. "The benefits of transparency are mutually advantageous to civil society and government. The vigilance of our citizens becomes the standard which our public leaders will be measured. Transparency parts the curtains of corruption and illegal practices. In turn, accountability, will refine decision-making, and make leadership and public institutions more responsive and efficient."
FOI was not the only concern that the President left out of the SONA.
In an address notable for ignoring former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo - and thereby highly anticipated to tackle forward-looking programs - Mr. Aquino also side-stepped debates on population control, roadmaps for ICT strategies for the Philippines, and a broader discussion on the need for Constitutional reform.
Once again, on the matter of Charter Change, the non-mention was glaring given how both Houses of Congress had signalled its own perceived urgency to update the economic provisions of the Constitution. Both Enrile and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte on Monday morning called for a revisiting of the Charter to enhance the Philippines' economic and investment environment.
In the crucible
The President began his speech with a reference to his family’s experience during martial law, noting he was 12 years old when martial law was declared, and how it turned his family’s life “upside down.”
He recalled the over seven years his father was detained and the three years the family spent in exile in the United States, concluding that in such crucible, “dito napanday ang aking prinsipyo [my principles were forged].”
Martial law and the dictatorship that followed it is gone and democracy has been won back peacefully, but the struggle to make people’s lives better will go on, the President stressed.
No mention of GMA
While he made no mention of his detained predecessor former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo, Aquino still alluded to the “nightmare of the lost decade” to remind people of what his administration had to reckon with the past two years.
Later in his speech, he also said he could not abide a “forgive and forget” policy when it comes to redressing the abuses of past officials. Besides the charges filed against Arroyo, the President had taken a strong role in initiating the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, her midnight appointee. On Monday, Aquino did not mention Corona by name, but thanked those who he said helped make the justice system work, even when a powerful person [Corona] is involved.
As examples of abuse and wrongdoing in the nine years of Arroyo, he cited the contract for the North Rail project that he said was onerous to the republic; the abuses in government-owned and -controlled corporations; and the treatment as private largesse of the state gaming agency, PAGCOR.
Instead of redressing the deprived state of the Philippine National Police---over half of whose members had no guns---the previous administration bought overpriced, second-hand choppers. These are now the subject of a plunder case in the Ombudsman.
He cited among the “long list of nightmares” the huge backlogs in classrooms, chairs, textbooks and teachers; the fact that 36 million Filipinos still needed to be enrolled in PhilHealth; and the stark neglect of the AFP.
Aquino recalled starting off the wave of reforms with a simple thing as decreeing the stop of using sirens for officials’ cars, including his own, and leaving only the law-enforcement vehicles and medical ambulances as exceptions.
The administration pursued reforms, took out anomalies and needless expenses, and signaled that the once “sick man of Asia” is now “open for business,” he recalled.
He chided critics who portrayed the initial economic gains as “tsamba” [fluke].
With eight credit rating upgrades, a stock index that has gone beyond 5,000 at least 44 times, and a 6.4-percent first-quarter economic growth that made the Philippines second only to China as fastest-growing economy in Asia, Mr. Aquino wondered aloud, in a jab at critics, whether the gains were a fluke.
“Before, we always borrowed; now, we’re the ones lending,” he noted, in apparent reference to a recent move by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas to lend $1 billion from the country’s robust international reserves—powered by OFW remittances---to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
He cited a Bloomberg/Businessweek article, “Keep an eye on the Philippines,” and the prediction by a Morgan Stanley top economist that the Philippines will be “Asia’s next tiger.”
In 2010, he said, there were 760,357 households that were beneficiaries of the 4P’s flagship anti-poverty program. In February of 2012, that number was up to 3 million; and the government aims to bring this up to 3.8 million by 2013.
Now, he said, 85 percent of citizens are Philhealth members, with 23 million people added to the registry since 2010.
Beyond coverage by hospital services, Aquino said the government had stepped up preventive approaches like expanded immunization and the use of devices like the “OV” mosquito traps, which drastically reduced the incidence of cases in dengue hot zones since last year.
Sin tax bill to raise health funds
He then pushed for the quick passage of the sin tax bill, which was hurdled by the House before Congress adjourned in June, and will soon be up for Senate deliberations.
The sin-tax bill will both curb the vice, and yield badly-needed funds for health programs. Experts had long pointed to the billions spent to deal with the serious diseases blamed on tobacco use.
Before the end of 2013, he said, the administration would have wiped out the backlog in classrooms; and by end-2012, the backlog in chairs and textbooks.
“Now, let’s make sure we don’t create new backlogs with more students,” he said, adding, “responsible parenthood ang sagot dito,” a remark that stopped short of making an unequivocal pitch for the RH bill. Despite the ambiguity, it drew loud applause.
From infancy to the teenage years, the system covers a person’s needs, he noted. And, when a young man or woman graduates, he wants to make sure the jobs are available.
Nearly 3.1-million new jobs in past two years were created, he said.
He recalled how unemployment was steadily whittled down, from 8.8% in April 2010; to 7.2 % in April 2011 ; and 6.9% this April.
He singled out the BPO sector for notching the biggest increase in the number of jobs generated—from 5,000 people employed in year 2000, in 2011 at least 638,000 were employed in the sector, which generated P11 billion for the economy.
Other gains, plans
Aquino’s record (the longest SONA, post-EDSA) speech ticked off accomplishments across a wide range of sectors, as well as the administration’s plans to build on them:
• The construction of the New Bohol Airport in Panglao, New Legaspi Airport in Daraga, and Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental; and the upgrade of international airports in Mactan, Tacloban and Puerto Princesa Airport; the remodeling of airports in Butuan, Cotabato, Dipolog, Pagadian, Tawi-Tawi, Southern Leyte, and San Vicente in Palawan.
• By July next year, the complete resolution of all the structural defects “we inherited in NAIA 3.”
• Completion in 2015 of LRT Line 1 Cavite Extension project; and two elevated roads directly connecting the North Luzon and South Luzon Expressways; as well as high-quality terminals in Taguig, Quezon City, and Parañaque, so that provincial buses will no longer add to the traffic on EDSA.
• At least 1,569 kms of the 7,239 kms of poorly-maintained national roads fixed; with an additional 2,275 kilometers finished in end-2012.
• Robust growth in tourism: from 1.8 million tourist arrivals in year 2000, to only 3.1 million in 2010, a whopping 2.1 million tourist arrivals had been recorded just halfway through June 2012, with the quota of 4.6 million tourist arrivals for the full year seen to be attainable. The end-goal is 10 million tourists visiting the Philippines annually by 2016.
• With an NFA debt that ballooned from P12 billion in 2001 to P177 billion in 2010, the previous administration also jacked up the volume of rice imports to 1.3 million metric tons, with much of the rice later found rotting in warehouses. In just one year the annual shortage of 1.3 million metric tons was reduced to just 860,000 metric tons; and for 2012, it is down to 500,000—including a buffer stock to dip into in times of calamity.
• Completion of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, with all the land covered by CARP distributed by 2016.
• The lighting up, by DOE and NEA, of 1,520 sitios at a cost of P814 million in just three months---compared to an earlier target of P1.3 billion to light up an initial target of only 1,300 sitios.
• Continuing decline in crime volume across the country: from 2009’s 500,000 crimes recorded, to only 246,958 this year; and 2,200 cases of carnapping in 2010 reduced by half—to 966 cases---in 2011.
• Completion of the bidding—and now testing the quality—for an order of 74,600 guns, badly needed by the PNP.
• The allocation, after only one year and seven months, of P28 billion for the AFP Modernization Program; soon matching the cumulative P33 billion set aside for the program in the past 15 years. If the proposed AFP modernization bill is passed in Congress, P75 billion will be allocated for defense within the next five years.
• The Armed Forces is canvassing equipment such as cannons, personnel carriers and frigates, and the government wants to ensure that 36,000 kilometers of coastline will be patrolled by more modern ships.
• For the Air Force, the solitary C-130 “that has been roaming our skies for the past 36 years” will be joined by two more C-130s that will once again be operational. Twenty-one refurbished UH-1H Helicopters, the four combat utility helicopters, the radios and other communication equipment, the rifles, the mortars, the mobile diagnostic laboratories, and even the station bullet assemblies purchased earlier will be delivered. Come 2013, ten attack helicopters, two naval helicopters, two light aircraft, one frigate, and air force protection equipment will also be arriving.
• The financial burdens of soldiers and policemen have been eased through the 22,000 houses built under the AFP–PNP housing program.
• Reforms in the ARMM weeded out ghost schools, ghost roads, and ghost teachers; and allowed the building of real housing, bridges, and learning centers for Badjaos in Basilan. Other benefits from reform: community-based hatcheries, nets, materials to grow seaweeds, and seedlings benefited 2,588 fishermen. Certified seeds, gabi seedlings, cassava, rubber, and trees that are bearing fruit for 145,121 farmers.
• Issuance of Executive Order 79, to redress inequitable revenue sharing in mining. The Palace wants this followed with legislation from Congress.
• In disaster risk reduction, the institutionalization of Project NOAH; with 86 automated rain gauges and 28 water level monitoring sensors in various regions now providing data real time. By the end of 2013, the target is: 600 automated rain gauges and 422 water level sensors installed in 80 primary river basins around the country.
• At least 128,558 hectares of forest have been planted across the country; with 1.5 million-hectare farmlands to be laid out by 2016.