AS in past state-of-the-nation addresses, reactions to President Rodrigo Duterte’s first SONA ranged pretty wide.
There were lawmakers looking for omissions here and there, and a veteran journalist and some academics lamenting what they saw as a lack of vision and an excess of distraction obscuring key policy thrusts.
For others, though, the adlibs were central to the SONA message: they enabled Duterte to connect with the people and show that he speaks from the heart, truly cares for them, and is one of them, though he is now the highest and most powerful official in the land.
Take it from someone who knows the longtime Davao City mayor from way back. In his article “Things not ‘right’ in Duterte’s SONA,” Sun Star Davao columnist Tyrone Velez rightly argues: “Duterte’s speech, adlibs and images connect … more to the audience of millions of Filipinos watching him. Here is a president [who]embraces the language and longings of the masses.”
And more than just connecting with the poor, Velez notes, Duterte expresses heartfelt concern: “This SONA is not about stats and figures. Rather, it’s images of life that Duterte paints in his SONA: of widows and mothers orphaned by fallen combatants in battlefields, of middle-class people sleeping [on the street]just to be first in line to apply for passports and licenses, of OFWs stranded and in need of help, of urban poor settlers threatened by demolitions, of forests and farms threatened by large-scale mines, of Lumads and Moro people wanting the peace of the living and not the peace of the gun.”
For those and other needy Filipinos, the most important takeaway from the SONA is still the assurance that Duterte and his government will resolutely and effectively address the mega-ills paining the people every day.
So maybe the vision thing is something for a later speech, even the next SONA, assuming Duterte is into that. Meantime, he and the nation really want to get some enormous hassles and threats cut down to manageable, if not inconsequential size.
Delivering the SONA agenda
So what should be done to deliver the initiatives and outcomes put forth on Monday?
That was exactly this writer’s job as Cabinet secretary for seven years till he became chairman of the Civil Service Commission in 2008: monitoring and ensuring the implementation of directives to the Cabinet, especially the SONA pledges.
The task was particularly challenging in the 2001 speech, which listed 55 time-bound and measurable targets to deliver. Among them:
• Channel P20 billion a year to agriculture and fisheries modernization
• Cut by half the signatures required for frontline services
• Distribute 200,000 hectares of land annually, half public and half private
• Provide security of land tenure to 150,000 urban-poor families every year
• Build three new mass-transit lines in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
The Cabinet Secretariat (CabSec), part of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), held regular monitoring meetings for the Cabinet secretary to review directives, address problems and, if necessary, propose adjustments in targets and timetables for then-President Gloria Arroyo’s approval.
More crucial, the President herself held Cabinet meetings every week or so to check on the progress of directives and lend her clout to clear bottlenecks, obstacles, and delays. One result: budget utilization exceeded 90 percent, as against a historical average of 85 percent in past regimes.
Depending on the current division of executive authority and functions in the Office of the President, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, or PMS Head Bong Go can oversee the SONA and other presidential priorities, with PMS and CabSec support.
But equally indispensable to Palace monitoring is Duterte’s constant prodding of agency heads to deliver on the targets and initiatives. Quite simply, if the chief isn’t watching the store, nothing moves.
Just look what happened under the last President who wasn’t keen on weekly Cabinet meetings. Even his pet program for public-private partnerships went nowhere in the first year, and fell way behind targets, just like overall infrastructure spending.
To deliver the SONA agenda, Duterte must constantly watch and drive the Cabinet and other agencies—as he did his Davao City executives for decades.
In future SONAs, he and the Cabinet may wish to go over various government initiatives and national concerns, and come up with doable, time-bound targets to be highlighted in the speech. That’s what Arroyo did in all her addresses to Congress, so that most if not all promised measures and undertakings will have a good chance of being done.
Winning against crime and drugs
In this and future articles, this column will look at particular SONA items and issues, and suggest measures that may be needed but were not mentioned in the speech. For this piece, we look at the anti-crime agenda.
So far, Duterte has focused on hunting down drug masterminds and offenders, and shutting down narco-lords in prisons. He has also targeted corrupt police and local government unit executives, including governors and mayors.
As noted in our Tuesday SONA article, which charted how the past administration spawned the crime explosion, another key factor in the scourge is unabated smuggling, which allowed drugs and guns to flood into the country.
To beat crime, Duterte must also stanch contraband—a crucial anti-crime and -drugs policy initiative not mentioned in his SONA and yet to be clearly spelled out.
Another seemingly missing plank against lawlessness is judicial and prosecutorial reform and upgrading. Plainly, if casework and trials are not handled well, crooks will keep getting off the hook. Then law enforcers will have to keep gunning them down—neither a sustainable nor a morally and legally right policy.
Lastly, it’s no secret that poverty drives many people to crime. Hence, any campaign against drug trafficking and other lucrative vices like jueteng must include a massive livelihood component to give alternative income for those told to end their killer trade.
Duterte’s SONA sent the right signals. Now it’s the hard part.