SONA 2020: “Boracay is doing well because of its scenery”

July 28, 2020

by Sonny Africa

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) was actually honest and explained a lot.

The president is at the commanding heights of policymaking in the country. If this last SONA showed anything, it’s the lack of leadership over pandemic response at the very top — Pres. Duterte doesn’t seem to appreciate the worst public health crisis and economic decline in the country’s history.

Which is why the president’s SONA was, despite the relative lack of profanity and misogynistic ad libs, still deeply offensive. The country and millions of people are suffering from the pandemic. Yet, in the most important policy speech of the year and maybe of this administration, the president even joked about not understanding what his speechwriters had written. This was in incredibly poor taste. People are suffering and deserve better.

Pres. Duterte didn’t really talk about where we are in the crisis and what the government’s plans are to get us out of this. With all the power in the country to do good, it turns out he’s just going to use this to pursue his same old stale, narrow-minded and personal agenda.

Illegal drugs and oligarchs are still at the top of his mind as if the world hasn’t become radically different and challenging in the last six months. No wonder COVID-19 is still spreading after four months of lockdowns. Tens of millions of poor Filipinos aren’t getting the aid they need, and there’s still no economic recovery plan six months into the pandemic.

The president is candid about deferring to his economic managers on economic issues. This isn’t necessarily a good thing because finance folks are among those deeply unsuited to be at the helm of development policymaking.

Economic development, especially during crises, is most of all about the people. Finance folk, even during crises, will cling to a ‘strong fiscal position’ and ‘prudent fiscal management’ as if these are the ends of development. ‘Creditworthiness’ for whom? That’s always for the creditors who only care about being paid back.

Versions of the Bayanihan 2 bill he mentioned have been in Congress since May. But his government has been sitting on them because the economic managers are more concerned about ‘creditworthiness’ than the health and economic response the people need. What they propose is too little and certainly too late. Taking so long is just making things worse.

The original stimulus bill proposed by Congress was worth Php1.3 trillion and would have been more effective. More so if bigger funds were allotted for household cash transfers to improve poor families’ welfare and boost aggregate demand especially for goods and services of local medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs).

Deferring to the finance department, the Bayanihan 2 bill in the Senate is worth just Php140 billion and the House version just Php162 billion. These are far too small for the magnitude of the crisis at hand. They will also have even less effect the longer they take to get passed and as the economic damage mounts.

Other countries in the region have had stimulus measures since as early as February or March. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia still without a stimulus program, and probably among the world’s laggards as well.

The rant against so-called oligarchs is particularly empty. His administration controversially fosters its own oligarchs. The Villar family are close political and business allies and they’re riding the wave of water privatization to join the ranks of the country’s water barons. Dennis Uy is a friend from Davao who became the sole bidder to become the country’s third telco, and not coincidentally joined the ranks of the country’s super-rich only in 2019 under Pres. Duterte’s watch.

Profit-seeking monopolies and oligarch rule in the country of course need to be dismantled. For the Duterte administration though, its tough talk is just a facade for using the vast powers of government to favor its allies and against perceived unfriendly competition in business and in politics.

At this rate and especially if the global recession drags on, recovery even to just pre-COVID levels may take years. The economy is sinking and the people will suffer even more – but we’ll be creditworthy.

“Boracay is doing well because of its scenery,” the president happily declared while droning on about various pending bills in Congress so tangential to the urgent crises the country is facing today. It was the only hint of sunshine in a speech that bared just why things are going to get even worse in the period to come.