By Arjay L. Balinbin
PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte, in his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, reaffirmed key policies of his administration such as the drive against corruption and environmental rehabilitation, vowing to step up these initiatives in partnership with Congress.
He also pushed for legislation on up to four more tax reform packages and against job contractualization, among other policy directions seen as disruptors in the country’s business scene.
Unlike in his past, partly improvised SONAs, Mr. Duterte this time stuck to the formal tenor of his hour-long prepared speech, that began more than an hour late at 5:15 p.m.
The speech made no reference to the political drama unfolding in Congress upon Mr. Duterte’s arrival at 4 p.m., when allies of former president and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sought to wrest the speakership of the House of Representatives from Pantaleon D. Alvarez of Davao Del Norte’s first district (see story on S1/ 10).
In his introductory remarks, Mr. Duterte acknowledged “House Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez” as well as Vice-President Maria Leonor G. Robredo and Acting Chief Justice Antonio T. Carpio, both of whom have been critical of the Duterte government’s handling of the country’s maritime issues with China in the West Philippine Sea.
By evening, however, the House of Representatives was set to formally replace Mr. Alvarez with Ms. Arroyo at the speakership.
Mr. Duterte began his speech with what he vowed would be a continuing war on drugs, saying this campaign “will not be sidelined” and will remain “relentless and chilling.”
But 10 minutes into the subject, he moved on to other matters, in a speech that dwelt significantly on economic policy directions on his watch that are now familiar to the business sector.
He took a swipe at the telecommunications duopoly in his remarks on the need for a third telco player.
“Our efforts to usher in a new major player shall be rendered futile if we do not improve its odds of success in an industry that has long been dominated by a well-entrenched duopoly,” Mr. Duterte said.
“We shall, therefore, lower interconnection rates between all industry players. Not only to lessen the cost to the consumers as it will also lower the costs [for the] incoming player to access existing networks, [thereby creating] a market environment that is more conducive to competition. This is a policy which is crucial to ensure that our solution to our telecommunication problems will be both meaningful and lasting,” he also said.
On mining, Mr. Duterte said, “Expect reforms, radical ones.”
“I say this once again and maybe for the last time, do not destroy the environment or compromise our resources; repair what you have mismanaged. Try to change [your] management radically because this time you will have restrictive policies. The prohibition of open pit mining is one,” the President also said to the applause of his audience.
He said of “our actions in Boracay,” the tourist island under rehabilitation, that this “mark(s) the beginning of a new national effort… For the other tourist destinations needing urgent rehabilitation and enforcement of environmental and other laws shall soon follow. I urge our local government units to proactively enforce our laws and not wait for us to swoop down on your areas just to do your duty and work. Some other time I would have to discuss (this matter with the) local government units.”
In the labor sector, he asked Congress “to pass legislation ending the practice of contractualization once and for all.” A pending security of tenure bill, however, has yet to be identified as priority measure.
On the Ease of Doing Business Act that Mr. Duterte enacted into law in May, he said: “We need to sustain our momentum.”
“I hereby direct all local government units — makinig sana kayo (I wish you’d listen) — and government agencies to faithfully implement this law and simplify the process. Hinihingi ko ho ‘yan sa lahat nasa gobyerno under my control and supervision. Huwag ho kayong magkamali (I ask this from all in government under my control and supervision. Do not make a mistake).”
Mr. Duterte thanked Congress for the passage of the first package of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN law, adding that “I hope to sign package 2 before the year ends.” While the first package, Republic Act No. 10963, slashed personal income tax rates and increased or added levies on several items, the second package will cut corporate income tax rates and rescind fiscal perks deemed redundant.
He also asked Congress to approve all the remaining three to four more tax reform packages “in succession”.
On mitigating measures on tax reform, Mr. Dutete said, “We have distributed unconditional cash transfers to 4 million people, and we will help 6 million more this year.”
“Following the one-peso discount per liter in gas stations, we have also started releasing fuel vouchers to public utility jeeps and other valid franchises. Further, we have fast-tracked the distribution of NFA rice to provide affordable rice for all,” he added.
Mr. Duterte also said: “This year, we are giving P149 billion worth of subsidies to the poor and vulnerable. Next year, the amount will be increased to P169 billion. But no amount of subsidy can help the poor if some businesses take advantage of the situation to make more money. I ask businesses to cooperate with us in charging a fair price.”
“To help stabilize rice prices, we also need to address the issue of artificial rice shortage. I now ask all the rice hoarders, cartels and their protectors, you know that I know who you are: stop messing with the people… Power sometimes is not a good thing. But I hope I will not have to use it against you,” the president said.
“I am directing all intelligence agencies to unmask the perpetrators of this economic sabotage and our law enforcement agencies to bring them to justice.”
He further endorsed to Congress the adoption of a regular tariff scheme for imported rice, a move that is expected to slash retail prices of the staple by about P7 per kilogram.
“We need to switch from the current quota system in importing rice to a tariff system where rice can be imported more freely. This will give us additional resources for our farmers, reduce the price of rice by up to 7 pesos per kilo and lower inflation significantly. I ask Congress to prioritize this crucial reform, which I have certified as urgent today,” Mr. Duterte said.
He also called for a “bicameral conference… at the soonest possible time (on) the bill establishing the coconut farmers trust fund,” and asked the Senate “to urgently pass the National Land Use Act to put in place a national land use policy that will address our competing land requirements for food, housing, businesses, and environmental conservation.”
Among the much-anticipated themes in his speech, Mr. Duterte said, “Give me 48 hours to sign (the Bangsamoro Organic Law).” The law was ratified by the Senate on Monday morning but was stalled in the House amid the power struggle between Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Arroyo.
“At the end of my term, I hope to see the promise of Mindanao fulfilled, or at the very least, approaching fulfilment. Be that as it may, Mindanao pauses at the crossroads of history. One road leads to harmony and peace; the other, to war and human suffering.”
He also said, “We shall continue to assert and pursue an independent foreign policy.”
“Our improved relationship with China… does not mean that we will waiver in our commitment to defend our interests in the West Philippine Sea. This is why we engage China through bilateral and multilateral platforms such as the ASEAN-China and the Philippines-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism,” Mr. Duterte said further.
Mr. Duterte spent about 10 minutes on his closing subject, charter change. On the draft federal charter completed by the Consultative Committee he had formed to review the 1987 Constitution, Mr. Duterte said, “I am confident that the Filipino people will stand behind us as we introduce this new fundamental law that will not only strengthen our democratic institutions, but will also create an environment where every Filipino — regardless of social status, religion, or ideology — will have an equal opportunity to grow and create a future that he or she can proudly bequeath to the succeeding generations. “
“I have no illusions of occupying this office one day longer than what the Constitution under which I was elected permits; or under whatever Constitution there might be,” he also said.
Lawmakers gave mixed reactions to the President’s SONA, particularly on the subjects of charter change and the second tax reform package.
Senate president Vicente Sotto III said Mr. Duterte’s speech was “Precise and concise. A lot better than a two hour speech.”
“In fairness sa kanya, hindi siya nag-off script. Nabasa niya po ang priority measures (He didn’t go off-script. He highlighted all the priority measures),” said Senate Majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri.
Former Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III also echoed this in this statement, saying “This is a well-written address by the president. Sinabi nanman niya siguro lahat ng priorities niya na sabihin.”
Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Richard J. Gordon said, “Ang SONA naman eh yung lang outline ng kanyang gagagwin at kung papano niya gagawin. Kami ay susuporta sa kanyang gagawin.”
Senate JV Ejercito lauded the president’s SONA delivery which “showcased the qualities that endeared him to a great majority of our people. His speech was honest, straightforward, deeply personal and showed his love for the nation. ”
On the other hand, Senator Ana Theresia N. Hontiveros-Baraquel remarked that Mr. Duterte’s speech was like a “bad movie rerun lamang na walang solid na laman in terms of achievement or clear directions forward.”
Senator Francis “Kiko” N. Pangilinan also said a similar statement, adding that president’s “address itself was more of the same promises made during the 2016 election campaign.”
Albay District Representative Edcel Lagman C. Lagman also disapproved of the president’s address, stating “President Rodrigo Duterte has failed to address in his 3rd SONA the “change” he promised the people during the presidential campaign.
He added, “President Duterte did not address the reforms which the people want, but instead concentrated on the so-called reforms he himself wants to pursue and implement.”
Anakpawis Party-list Representative Ariel B. Casilao was another representative who expressed disappointment in the SONA. “As expected, the poor sectors, peasants and workers have nothing to hope for on President Duterte’s speech,” he said.
“Duterte’s speech is not a means to put cold water over fuming unrest of the people for real change, but another testament of his anti-people governance or regime,” Mr. Casilao added.
Mr. Zubiri raised the issue on TRAIN 2, which he added, “Pati ako medyo mabigat din sa akin yun pero pakinggan natin ang DoF (Department of Finance) kung ano mga proposals nila. Of course, the senate will study this very carefully.”
Senator Paolo Benigno A. Aquino said, “Sa palagay ko, ang hinihintay ng marami sa mga kababayan natin ang mga solusyon upang maibsan ang patuloy na pagtaas ng presyo ng bilihin.”
Committee on Labor Chair Joel B. Villanueva said, “With regard to TRAIN 2, we are in favor of reducing the fiscal leakages from wasteful incentives and lowering of corporate tax rates to make the country more competitive.
He added, “At the minimum, we will need a clear framework in identifying industries that will be incentivized for generating quality jobs and for contributing significant growth to our economy.”
Mr. Lagman said that did not introduce reforms to alleviate poverty and insisted “on the full implementation of the TRAIN Law which has triggered the rise of inflation to 6.1% on food and non-alcoholic beverages, thus exacerbating food poverty, further reducing the people’s purchasing power, and decreasing the value of real wages.”
Mr. Casilao said that Mr. Duterte “had the gall to justify the TRAIN law, which poor Filipinos already know is snatching household incomes and putting the poor to unimaginable state of poverty and misery. He justified the anti-people tax system as to fund the “Build, Build, Build” program which shall displace many poor communities in the country.” — with a report from Gillian M. Cortez
By Arjay L. Balinbin