IN the hours leading up to President BS Aquino 3rd’s delivery of his last State of the Nation Address, probably the most popular topic of conversation around the newsroom, and indeed, in most of the online media as well, was about how predictable these speeches have become.
To a certain extent, that is not a problem unique to this particularly unimpressive man. The SONA is not, by design, a forum for a frank, critical discussion of the Administration’s performance over the past year, but rather a chance for its self-promotion before a captive audience. Yes, we expect that whatever is said is at least fundamentally honest, but we don’t necessarily expect objectivity.
That is perhaps why the criticisms leveled at the president after this year’s speech—which were mostly the same criticisms aired after the previous five speeches, since the speeches themselves are broadly indistinguishable from each other—will have no impact on the Administration. Neither will it encourage this government to make significant changes in policy, such as dropping its opposition to modification of constitutional foreign ownership restrictions or the Freedom of Information Act (support for the latter being an explicit campaign promise that BS Aquino broke immediately after being elected).
BS Aquino didn’t show up at the Batasang Pambansa to entertain our suggestions. He was there, as it has always been for him or any other president, to tell us the shape of the world as it appears in his blinkered field of vision.
For those who were watching and listening for some clear economic aspirations and strategies, the speech was undoubtedly a disappointment, but perhaps no more or less so than any of the others.
For five years we have witnessed the Philippine economy advance at a modest pace toward something resembling a sort of stability —a safe, cautious financial system; the continuing and admittedly relatively efficient exploitation of exported labor (either through actual physical exports or the BPO sector); and the relatively free rein given to established and well-capitalized conglomerates to expand the critical consumption base. All this has occurred in spite of rather than because of the Aquino Administration.
While we do give a nod to the efforts of agencies like the BSP and the Treasury for prudent—if perhaps a little over-cautious—management of the country’s financial sphere, and to other agencies such as the PPP Center for devising ways to glean something productive out of policies of questionable value, in terms of overall direction, we still have no more idea where the country is headed now than we did five years ago. Other than the same vapid rhetoric about “clean governance” supporting economic growth – a claim of dubious value coming from a president whose government will be historically noteworthy for widespread, large-scale scandals – and the undefined promise of “inclusive growth,” there is no plan.
BS Aquino spent a significant amount of his speech exhorting his successor, whoever that turns out to be, to “continue his reforms” without really defining what those reforms are. What we got instead was a laundry list of unconnected achievements, and to be fair, some of those, like the expansion of electrification in poor areas and the correction of safety flaws in air transport oversight, were positive steps. But steps to what beyond bringing the country up to a nominal condition in a couple of respects that lesser countries have little trouble managing, we have no more idea now than we did five years ago.
If we were given the opportunity to suggest topics to the President beforehand, we would have asked that he enlighten us on the government’s intentions regarding the enactment of a new mining policy (now currently buried in a legislative committee), how the government intends to improve its evidently ineffective budget disbursement and oversight processes, and how the government intends to revamp corporate, personal, and import tax structures that have become not only burdensome to payers, but inefficient means of collecting revenues for the government.
We might ask that the President share with us the government’s forward-looking agricultural strategy, one that would result in something other than what the Vietnamese ambassador at The Manila Times business forum last week playfully asked, if it would be possible for the Philippines not to import so much rice from his country.
Over the next few days, the contents of this final, interminably long SONA will be comprehensively dissected by pundits and economic analysts; for most of us, that will involve dusting off old notes from last year – and the year before that, and the year before that one – and refreshing the content to reflect current dates and details. President BS Aquino 3rd has been nothing if not consistent, and after five directionless years, to expect anything more now – when he can finally start marking the days to the end of a job he says he didn’t want in the first place – would have been the vainest of hopes.