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

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.

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