Thought Paper: Reflections on BSAIII’s Third State of the Nation Address (SONA)

The Talumpati sa Kalagayan ng Bansa, or State of the Nation Address, is a constitutional obligation. Article VII, Section 23 of the 1987 Constitution provides that “[t]he President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session”, which Article VI, Section 15 schedules “once every year on the fourth Monday of July”. That said, for people working in government (particularly under the Executive Branch), the annual SONA is a very personal thing.

This year marked my second SONA as one of the many tiny cogs in government’s engine. Although it wasn’t spent running around Batasan in makeshift terno and heels, as I did last year, in many ways this year was more intense. For us alipins sa guiguilid, the SONA is not just a speech reporting on the status of the country. It is a measure of how successful, or “SONA-ble” line agencies have been over the course of the year, and beyond all else, is a public declaration of marching orders for the following year. Look beyond the gowns and the applause: the SONA is serious because this administration is serious. Look beyond the President’s humor, broadcast in crisp, clear Tagalog (and BSA III is the first and only Chief Executive to have done so)–each soundbite has been fought and labored for with literal tears and sweat and blood.

Although internet pundits have criticized the SONA for being too much of a Cabinet group hug, I am glad that P mentioned some of his Agency chiefs. Not for the praise per se, although they were certainly earned, but for the reminder to the public that Government, or any institution/group of institutions, for that matter, is made up of people. People and the relationships between and among them that can deliver (or undeliver) results, as opposed to the traditional notion of the bureaucracy as a monolithic, soulless State that can be easily lambasted for every societal iniquity. At present, its current manifestation is a little too personality-centric, but I believe that that’s only because of the current presidential model and can change as the Philippine political consciousness comes to a more mature state. (One can hope.) But I digress.

As easily predicted, this year’s SONA was more or less loosely structured around the five Key Result Areas of the Aquino Administration, which in turn are taken from his electoral platform as embodied in the Social Contract with the Filipino People. The same overarching logic is used in the Philippine Development Plan, and in mid-2011, the cabinet cluster system was reorganized to follow the same KRAs. These are as follows: a. Anti-Corruption and Transparent, Accountable and Participatory Governance, b. Poverty Reduction, Empowerment of the Poor and Vulnerable, c. Rapid, Inclusive and Sustained Economic Growth, d. Just and Lasting Peace and the Rule of Law, and e. Integrity of the Environment and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.

We must give credit to his young team of speechwriters for being able to craft one-and-a-half hours of imagery that translated the work of the last two years into something more human. The narrative was anchored, of course, with the caveat that the present government works in the shadows of a lost decade under GMA, “like boxers sent into the ring blindfolded, with our hands and feet bound, and the referee and the judges paid off”. That said, I believe that these passages basically encapsulate the entire SONA: “Nangarap po tayo ng pagbabago;nakamit natin ang pagbabago; at ngayon, karaniwan na ito […] Nagpatupad po tayo ng reporma: tinanggal ang gastusing hindi kailangan, hinabol ang mga tiwali, at ipinakita sa mundong open for business under new management na ang Pilipinas.” (We dreamt of transformation, and we have achieved transformation. Today, transformation is the norm. […] We were able to institute reforms, removed unnecessary spending, made wrong-doers accountable, and showed the world that the Philippines is now open for business under new management).

And indeed it is: the recent spate of credit upgrades and the declaration of the Philippines as “Asia’s most stable economy” didn’t happen overnight. I’ve learned that if there is such a thing as the currency of governance, it is trust. And as in all relationships, trust between the State and its people is a fragile thing: it must be built repeatedly, daily, from moment to moment, over all aspects of daily life.

The provision of basic social services is the most obvious confidence-building measure. I am not a fan of K+12, and I am quite aware of the gaps in the frameworks of Philhealth and NHTS targeting that is the basis of 4Ps. However, it is undeniable that some inroads have indeed been made in the provision of human development and poverty reduction services (including the suspensions of certain local governments for misuse of CCT funds, although that was unreported in the SONA). The statement on “Responsible Parenthood” as a byword for the RH Bill certainly earned a round of catcalls and applause from different corners, as did the “simple math” quip with regard to the budget increase for State Universities and Colleges. Most leftist groups have used budget cuts to criticize this and previous administrations, and I could not help but laugh when P invited any would-be detractors to attend remedial classes if they still could not understand the increase (although they are more likely to cut them to rally at Mendiola). It was even funnier given that exactly one year ago, A., one of the EAs from the Department of Budget and Management, had posted a similar status message on Facebook. Same premise: SIMPLE MATH, it read, spelling out in basic equations that the budget for Education had increased, and not the opposite as claimed by tibaks everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the speechwriters had taken inspiration from that. 🙂

Beyond the victories, however, what I really heard was a list of directives and instructions of all the work, work, work that needs to be done. The announcements regarding infrastructure projects was great to hear (especially the promise from DOTC that by next SONA, “maisasaayos na ang mga structural defects na minana natin sa NAIA 3″), but to me, that translated to mental images of endless meetings, memoranda, bloody negotiations and renegotiations to win every inch of kilometer of concrete. Especially given that, of the five KRAs, I feel that it is in the economic sphere where the Philippines has the most catch-up work to be done. The same goes for the announced agricultural production, electrification and agrarian reform targets. But it goes without saying the key SONA directive for me has to do with OUR agency’s mandate, peace and security. This year, OPAPP and the peace negotiations earned two SONA-ble sentences, more or less (“Maaaring minsan, magiging masalimuot ang proseso. Signos lang po ito na malapit na nating makamit ang nag-iisa nating mithiin: Kapayapaan.”) but please believe us when we say that those two sentences were hard-won. As we watched around the office TV set, I jokingly swore, Scarlett O’Hara-style, that as God is my witness, the PAMANA program and the soon-to-be-signed (please lord) Final Peace Agreement with the MILF would take at least ONE paragraph and an infrographic for SONA 2013.

The scope of government work is such that it is impossible to cram everything into one single speech. Not when government operations touches on virtually everything of import that lies between a Filipino’s birth and death: from the Executive Order on Mining; to Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (including Project NOAH) that took on even more urgency yet again with the recent nameless Habagat that killed 66 people and displaced far more; to the ongoing territorial tussle with China over Bajo de Masinloc, and so much more. Be that as it may, the SONA fulfills one function that is not written down in the Constitution. When the President says that “posible na ang dating imposible (what was once impossible is now possible)”, he is not only stating a fact. He is a saying a prayer. It is casting out hopes with words, claiming to the world that the Philippines has recovered from moral, spiritual, fiscal rock bottom and is now mature enough, governance-wise, that a head of state can say that it is not his/her SONA, but is the SONA of the People of the Republic of the Philippines.

And as I put a close to this crammed paper, several images come to mind. First, the juxtaposition of the SONAs of the last two years: 2011, as an executive assistant to a cabinet secretary, and in 2010, as a teacher in UP Diliman, sweatily walking the road to Batasan alongside my activist colleagues, who were gleefully burning effigies of a completely different President. The second image is that of the casket of the recently-departed DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, who was not one of those cabsecs PNoy mentioned by name in the 2012 SONA, but whose quiet yet relentless work such as the establishment of the Seal of Good Housekeeping and the spearheading of reforms in the ARMM, has long-lasting implications, especially given that good governance and the fight against corruption is the heart and soul of the Aquino Administration. And third and final image: of my nameless officemates and colleagues in government, many of them–us–young idealists, all pulling late hours without overtime, working weekends and declining far more lucrative offers in the name of para sa bayan.

I only pray that all of this will not be in vain, come 2016.

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