OPINION: Ruminating on the 2019 SONA

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Jul 29 2019 04:42 PM

“I will not merely coast along or while away my time during the remaining years of my administration. It ain’t my style…” That to some is a statement suggesting that the President was not backpedalling on the war on drugs that there would be “more bloody encounters”. Perhaps, so I thought, it is because the President has been really focused on the drug war from day 1 that he has been talking about it all the time and that therefore many tend to assume everything he says could be tied to it. 

Nevertheless it is also the favorite issue of the opposition, even going out of their way to enjoin the international community to see the President as some criminal even leading some to ask or judge the Filipino people for continuing to trust him.

That line I think was a lot more than just pertaining to the drug war; it was more of summing up what, how and why he has been doing what he has been doing and what to expect of him in the next three years. That line is part of the long prefatory, starting with the call for agencies to be more responsive that is streamline government services. The message is to really serve the people, the very reason why he called on Landbank to work according to its supposed mandate, the same when he pressed for a way to put the long dragging issue of the coconut levy fund to good use. He then goes full circle and pushed for the urgent need “to ensure the sustainability and availability of resources and the alternative ones” referring to energy sources. Only then did he mention the drug war and security issues.

If we look back since day one, the President’s primary objective is to put the house in order, address lingering problems in government. This is the theme that is apparent with the issues and recommendations mentioned above. The message emphasized his leadership style that is vigorously pushing for what he thinks need to be done regardless whether popular or not, will remain; an affirmation of his unwavering political will. It is a message to his critics that he is not to dither nor slow down no matter what the critics say or do.

It’s actually not much of a choice for the President, as he warns that we are now in a “period of consequences”, that in time we will be asked to account of “things we did and did not do but should have done” in the first half of his term. There has to be a deliberate attempt to look back and decide how to move forward. To me, this is consistent with everything he has been saying and doing from the start, guided and reminded always of his campaign promises. What was not or has yet to be done he says won’t be blamed on anyone in the same way we seldom, if at all, heard him claim credit for anything that was done in the past 3 years.

On the other hand, there is no mistake that the President understands the need for long-term, comprehensive reforms. You feel the weight of the President’s goading of Congress right at the first half of his speech before going back to his advocacies mentioned above. There’s now a renewed effort to “rightsize” the bureaucracy, and related to that, the need to reconfigure the “Metro Manila-centric bureaucracy”, both consistent with dispersing “economic and business activities to Visayas and Mindanao. Just like the war on drugs, the policy direction is relentless in empowering the local governments.

Basically he is saying that local government units (LGUs) play a vital role, mentioning and urging them on three areas. First to simplify services along with the national government agencies (NGAs), enforce laws especially in the protection of the environment having in mind the importance of preservation to the tourism industry. Then he mentioned the LGUs crafting of their development plans based on what should have been there for the longest time, the National Land Use Plan. Without having to mention decentralization it was quite clear that he was not just enjoining LGUs to do their work, it was an acknowledgment that without them, not much could be done in government.

These are tall orders; remember for example how many administrations and congresses attempted to have a national land use plan in place and failed. The very limitation is in the absence of a completed national map. This impact on the development work of the LGUs, even of the national government as the lack of it prevents the appreciation of the fundamental spatial dimension of policy making.

Still and all, the wherewithal of LGUs to do their job is effectively enervated by NGAs’ many requirements that can in fact be simplified and made more functional. Consider for example the different requirements for a Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP), Annual Investment Plan (AIP), Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), and Forest Land Use to name just a few, required by each different individual NGA.

This fragmented approach leads LGUs to just ensure compliance, instead of actually appreciating the significance of plans. The CDP should be the overall plan that the others should be components of which. The fragmented approach even compromises the comprehensive nature of land use plans; note for example that it is the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council’s (HUDCC) approach that is followed in the formulation of CLUP. Housing on the other hand is just one of the many areas of concern requiring maps. 

Enjoining the LGUs and reminding them to do their job and advocating reforms to the Metro Manila-centric bureaucracy was obviously urging for further decentralization. Some on the other hand would argue that that is not the case as the President contradicts this by pushing for initiatives that reflect a centralized approach.

The President asked congress to pass a law “mandating a Fire Protection Modernization Program”, the creation of a Department of Overseas Filipinos (DoOF), Department of Disaster Resilience, Department of Water Resources and a Water Regulatory Commission and Water Regulatory Commission. Then he called for the revival of the mandatory ROTC for Senior High School students and the reinstitution of the death penalty.

Lest we are confused however, these are not necessarily contradicting the advocacy for more decentralization. This is in fact consistent with giving more powers to the LGUs, even pursuing federalism. Giving more powers to the LGUs and the Regions actually require a balancing handle at the center. Consider federal democracies abroad that approach emergency responsiveness at the center. There has to be a failsafe and this is the one that provides just that.

Still and all, the call to create for more departments should be carefully studied. This is again a fragmented approach. We cannot keep on creating new agencies to address particular problems. Consider the DoOF; how is this agency supposed to be different, that it does not overlap with the function of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)? On top of that, we have other agencies that essentially work on the same concerns, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA); which also overlaps work with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

The call to revive the death penalty will potentially drag the many other initiatives of the administration. There has to be a way to dispassionately approach the issue of criminality. We have a very weak policing, particularly forensic capacity that criminal cases rely so much on witnesses. The moment these witnesses leave or get killed the cases are then simply and sadly dismissed. This is apart from the problems with prosecutorial services of government. There has to be a way to comprehensively approach the justice system in the country.

We have to as much as possible look at policy making objectively and as much possible make it separate from partisanship. Better yet, use partisanship to determine alternative measures instead of simply shooting it down, as the proponent simply is not on your side. Consider for example the call to revive the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program.

One lawmaker exclaimed, he did undergo ROTC before but did not necessarily get him to develop or cultivate patriotism. I wonder what let that lawmaker to assume that such is the purpose of the ROTC. To a certain extent yes, it should, but only because the program should effectively make the student understand and appreciate national security and the role he plays in it. As to why it didn't work for him is something he didn't bother to explain. I was once a cadet officer before and I can very well say that there were so much to be had in the trainings then that in fact certainly resulted to its failure. One thing is for sure, we did away with citizens’ training before simply because the program was so ineffective, it even led to so many abuses. Because of it, the left was successful in its propaganda of vilifying the whole program. 

There is truth in what was quoted in the SONA. “…we have not risen above and beyond the parochial interests. Our warped loyalty to family, friends and tribal kin continue to exact a heavy toll on our programs designed to uplift the poor and reassure our investors, our foreign investors local, and the business sector in this country”. Unless we find a way to go beyond this limited purview, it will be difficult for us to advance.

(The author is a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.