By Arjan P. Aguirre
The State of the Nation Address (SONA) in the Philippines is an annual event that brings together all important personalities in the government — executive, legislative, and judiciary — under one roof, at the Batasang Pambansa. As a governmental tradition, it is a means for the president to inform the people about the current state of the nation and give recommendations to the legislature as regards to his/her agenda or priorities or proposed measures for the fiscal year. As a constitutional obligation (see Article VI, Section 15 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution), it mandates the president to deliver a speech about the state of the nation during the opening of the sessions of the national legislature (which is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives).
As a political practice, the SONA should be understood as a brief moment where symbolism, pageantry, and grandeur converge with the formalities, rigidities, and scrupulousness of institutions of power. The event is an annual performative display of both excesses of power and its deficiencies — including its suspensions and activations, by a functioning government.
As the Chief Executive appears before the joint session of the legislature, in the presence of members of the judiciary, governmental power becomes virtually one and spatially conjoined as all actors of power are put in the same place at the same time. With this excess, SONA, inherently speaking, becomes one of the greatest security challenges of any government. In fact, the story of the Gunpowder Treason of Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, among others, tells us much about this security threat that almost annihilated all important political figures (including King James I and members of the House of Lords) in the United Kingdom during the State Opening of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605.
Coming from this excess, one can easily notice another interesting function of this age-old practice — to reveal some of the inherent political deficiencies of the government. For one, the need to gather all these important political figures in one place all at the same time implies that each of the political actors present lacks something that needs to be supplied by the president — objective and comprehensive information about our society. The revival of the State of the Union address in 1913 by the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, recognized this point by emphasizing the duty to “give to the Congress information of the state of the Union.” Upon a closer look, President Wilson clearly understood the unique role of his office to be familiar with the general issues, problems, etc. in society as compared with the particular knowledge of the members of congress or specific legalistic understanding of the members of the judiciary.
Apart from the excesses and deficiencies, people should also know that the SONA is also filled with mixed moments of suspensions and activations. For the suspensions, the event is supposed to be a momentary break in hostilities, forcing the sitting government to extend an olive branch to its detractors just for a day and to allow all attendees to listen to what the government plans to do for the year. The Feb. 4 SONA in Luxembourg of the reelected Prime Minister Xavier Bettelon exemplified this point by allowing opposition party members from the Christian Social People’s party to sit alongside the administration “traffic light coalition” (composed of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers Party, Democratic Party, and The Greens) in the Chamber of Deputies. PM Bettel’s speech — entitled “Move Luxembourg” — talked about the status of the government and its people, and its plan for 2019 without any interruption or heckling from his critics.
The activations that come from a SONA pertains to that moment where a government is set to institutionalize its vision for the country through the declaration of its priority bills. The speech itself is not just a wish list of laws from the president addressed to the present legislators (and, yes, even members of the judiciary are addressed too by the president, for their decisions inherently form part of the law of the land). It is actually a “marching order” that is aimed to give directions to all lawmakers about what to prioritize or not for the year. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA this year, delivered on June 20, was heavily criticized for its lack of detail as regards his plans for this year. His speech did not have specific directives and instructions about how he intends to solve South Africa’s economic woes, outdated Natives Land act, and employment, among others.
Again, we have the SONA because it is one of the practices of a working and functioning government. As a political practice, it allows both the excesses and deficiencies of power, on the one hand, and political suspensions and activations, on the other hand, of the government to take place all in one day.
Arjan P. Aguirre is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. He handles courses on Politics and Governance, History of Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theories, Electoral Reforms, Social Movements and Contentious Politics. He is also a Consultant for the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) and Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB).