SONA 2017 promises on corruption and governance
A power play for speakership at the House of Representatives delayed by an hour President Rodrigo Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA) and spoiled what would have been a buoyant mood in Congress.
The leadership tussle between current Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Pampanga 2nd District Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also led to the failure of the Lower House to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), whose passage Malacañang had earlier promised.
“The BOL’s non-ratification came when the House suddenly adjourned and had nothing to do at all with some substantive issues of the proposed law,” peace adviser Jesus Dureza said in a statement.
“The BOL suffered this temporary setback as a ‘collateral damage’ due to an internal leadership issue in the House, but I trust and expect that in due time, the ratification which it deserves will take place as a matter of course,” Dureza added.
Duterte, in his 48-minute SONA, his shortest so far, assured the law will be approved in no time. “When the approved (BOL) version is transmitted and received by my office… The law has been passed actually and I intend to… Give me 48 hours to sign it and ratify the law,” he said.
“Mindanao pauses at the crossroads of history. One road leads to harmony and peace; the other, to war and human suffering,” he added.
Unlike in previous years, Duterte did not veer off his prepared speech, where he mostly urged Congress to pass priority legislation and gave updates on some of his centerpiece policies, including providing assistance to the poor.
On the war on drugs
Duterte vowed the war on illegal drugs is “far from over,” revising his earlier campaign promise to end problem in three to six months.
“Illegal drugs war will not be sidelined, instead it will be as relentless and chilling as the day it began,” he said, while taking a swipe at human rights campaigners who vigorously oppose the way the anti-drugs campaign is being waged.
The president thanked the 22-member consultative committee, led by former chief justice Renato Puno, created to review the 1987 Constitution and the federal charter.
Duterte recalled that no administration before him had successfully introduced charter amendments and revisions.
“I am confident that the Filipino people will stand behind us (on the draft federal charter),” he added.
A Social Weather Stations survey conducted in March found 37 percent of Filipino adults agree with the federal system of government, 29 percent disagree, while 34 percent were undecided about the matter.
Duterte vowed that corruption must stop, and cautioned friends he had appointed to office that he would not hesitate to remove them if found to be dishonest, as he had already done to a handful of supporters.
“I need not mention their names or recount the circumstances surrounding their removal or resignation,” he said.
A number of government officials discovered to be engaged in corrupt acts were dismissed from office in the past two years, but many of them were not properly held accountable. Some even got appointed to another government position.
Jose Gabriel “Pompee” La Viña, whose term as Social Security System Commissioner was not renewed by Duterte after allegations of corruption within the agency, was appointed first as tourism undersecretary and later as agriculture undersecretary.
Former Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon, who resigned after being linked to the P6.4 billion shabu smuggling case, was appointed as deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense.
The president merely accepted the resignation of some officials despite the controversies they were embroiled in.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II resigned after drug charges against bigtime drug lords Peter Lim and Kerwin Espinosa were dismissed.
Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, a sister the Tulfo brothers, quit over the questionable P60 million advertising contract her office awarded to her brother’s television program.
As of May 2018, the Tulfos haven’t returned the money despite a promise to do so.
On the economy
After applauding Congress for the timely passage of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN) Law, Duterte said it is incorrect to blame inflation on the government’s “efforts towards a fairer tax system.”
He said the government cannot stop the implementation of tax reforms, as some of his own allies in the Senate have suggested, but pointed out that measures like subsidies are being put in place to help some sectors cope with higher prices as a result of the TRAIN law.
Inflation soared to 5.2 percent in June “primarily brought about by higher annual rate posted in the heavily-weighted food and non-alcoholic beverages index at 6.1 percent,” according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. It is the highest recorded in the last five years.
According to Finance Assistant Secretary Paola Alvarez, the TRAIN law has “made possible” the implementation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ambitious multitrillion-peso infrastructure program “Build, Build, Build”: TRAIN allots 70 percent of the incremental revenue from the law for infrastructure.
The president also told Congress that he wants the second package of the TRAIN law, which seeks to lower corporate income tax rates, passed by the end of 2018.
On foreign relations
Duterte said the country will assert and pursue an independent foreign policy. He boasted of “re-energized relations with China,” but said improved relations does not mean the Philippines will waver in its commitment to defend its interest in the West Philippine Sea.
The president has been slammed for being too soft on China in the country’s territorial dispute with the Asian power which continues to beef up military installations and its forces in the contested areas. This despite the Philippines’ 2016 victory in the arbitration case against China in the Hague.
The chief executive, during his SONA, highlighted the dialogue between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China on August 2017, which resulted in the creation of the draft framework for the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. This “intends to resolve disputes through peaceful means.”
The adoption of the COC marked a milestone in a diplomatic process that began 25 years ago.
On the environment
The protection of the environment must be top priority and extracted resources should be for the benefit of the Filipino people, Duterte said.
He warned irresponsible mining businesses anew, telling them not to destroy the environment and repair what they have damaged. He expressed his opposition to open-pit mining for “destroying the country.”
Using Boracay as an example, the president called on local governments to help in the work of conserving and protecting the environment. The world-famous resort island has been closed to tourists since April 26 for a six-month cleanup after Duterte called it a “cesspool”.
“I urge local government units to pro-actively enforce our laws and not wait for us to swoop down on your areas just to do your duty and work,” the president said.
Duterte also appealed to the Senate to pass the National Land Use Act which would help address competing land requirements for food, housing, business and environment conservation.
Three bills remain pending in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources based on legislative records. The House of Representatives approved a similar bill in July 2017.
Duterte also asked to Congress to pass a law creating the Department of Disaster Management “with utmost urgency.”
Proposals to create a new disaster resilience department, which would consolidate existing agencies involved in disaster response, remain pending in both houses of Congress. Reports say Duterte is hoping for the enactment of the law before yearend. — Daniel Abunales, Maria Feona Imperial, Chi Liquicia, Kim Muaña, Merinette Retona, Celine Samson, Lucille Sodipe and Jake Soriano