Government News Analysis

Lagman’s superficial ‘SONA’

Lagman’s superficial State of the Nation (SONA) address
Lagman’s superficial State of the Nation (SONA) address

On 24 July, 23 day’s from now, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will make his second State of the Nation (SONA) address to his people. And, given his frank style, he’s unlikely to be pulling any punches.  He’ll trace the developments of the past 12 months, spotlighting the administration’s achievements so far under its socioeconomic agenda. He’ll likely also provide a forward view, identifying the government’s targets for the next 12 months and how they should be achieved.

There’s little point speculating on the details of what he’s going to say. And so we won’t pre-empt his speech, we’ll wait until after he’s delivered its full content at the Batasang Pambansa Complex, home to the Philippine House of Representatives in Quezon City. We won’t be stealing his thunder.

That, however, is precisely what Liberal Party stalwart, Edcel Lagman, the House member for Albay First District attempted to do earlier this week when he presented his own SONA in the form of a press release entitled “Assessment of Duterte’s First Year in Office”. Lagman is the leading light of the self-ascribed ‘Magnificent 7’ – a tight-knit group of lawmakers who’ve made it their mission to counter virtually anything that even remotely sniffs of Duterte policy.

The thrust of Lagman’s SONA was that the Philippines is in a worse state today than it was during the administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino under which Lagman served. He credited Duterte with achieving zero – other than: “Despite his unpresidential demeanor, profane language, abusive rhetoric and flawed policy statements, President Rodrigo Duterte, in his own inscrutable way, has held the nation together one year into his incumbency”.

The Magnificent 7’s head honcho seems to have been expecting that the massive legacy problems left behind by his party’s administration – in transport infrastructure, poverty alleviation, as well as in the peace processes for the Muslim provinces of the south and with the communist rebels – would be magically solved in 12 months?
Coming from someone as vehemently anti-Duterte as Lagman, that’s praise indeed. And, fatuous though the lawmaker’s appraisal is of the president’s first 12 months, it’s worth responding to. In his statement he enumerated areas where Duterte, in his view, has failed to live up to promises he made during his election campaign. “The people still await the coming of authentic change,” he said.

The Magnificent 7’s head honcho seems to have been expecting that the massive legacy problems left behind by his party’s administration – in transport infrastructure, poverty alleviation, as well as in the peace processes for the Muslim provinces of the south and with the communist rebels – would be magically solved in 12 months? What was he expecting; that Duterte would be bringing a magic wand with him from Mindanao to Malacañang? All these problems are the result of decades of neglect, entrenched government sclerosis and in some cases political sabotage.

Facile, self-serving analysis like that is not only unhelpful; it’s also an insult to the Filipino intellect. Believe us when we say it, the citizens of this land understand the country’s ills very well; unlike the political elites they’ve lived with them for decades. And they know they can’t be fixed overnight. Furthermore – unlike Lagman – they don’t expect them to be.

They want to see progress, and the fact is they believe they are seeing that – hence, Duterte’s current 76% approval rating on his performance to date; hence just 12% (Lagman and the rump of the dwindling Liberal Party among them) who feel he’s come up short.

Lagman’s crowd had six years to fix these messes – not 12 months – and failed to make any real lasting impact; certainly not as far as the traffic chaos, peace resolutions or the plight of the Philippine masses were concerned. Hence, Duterte’s overwhelming victory at the ballot box in May last year. What they said there was, they’d had enough.

A few more roads and bridges were put in, a bunch of airports were upgraded – but there was no push to build the country’s infrastructure from the ground up as there is with Duterte’s PHP8 trillion spending commitment to infrastructurally jolt the Philippines out of the 19th century and into the 21st. 

He failed to mention it was during his party’s administration that Manila rejoiced in the distinction of having the worst traffic in the world, while the country’s premier air gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, earned the merit of being “The World’s Worst Airport”. 

And yet in his SONA, Lagman said this: “The traffic gridlock, particularly in Metro Manila, intensifies daily up to a point of almost standstill”. He failed to mention it was during his party’s administration that Manila rejoiced in the distinction of having the worst traffic in the world, while the country’s premier air gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, earned the merit of being “The World’s Worst Airport”.

The Metro Manila Rail Transport System lurched from crisis to crisis, deteriorating under the weight of bribery claims and the government’s stubborn use of unqualified maintainance operators. Mainline rail projects slumped to a halt amid wrangles over contracts and graft. In short, during the Lagman years, traffic scandals gathered like flies around the rear quarters of a caribou.

And as we know, a great deal is being done to finally tackle the transport-infrastructure deficit in terms of new roads, air and sea ports and the development of a railway system that will be worthy of the name. Undoubtedly, these items – conspicuously missing from Lagman’s SONA – will be covered in the president’s address.

“Change has certainly not come for millions of poor Filipino families,” according to Lagman. Duterte, he complained, has still not fixed the poverty. He failed to mention that after six years of his party’s governance the poverty gap expanded. In the last year of that administration there were 22 million Filipinos unable to buy basic items such as food.

But again, as we know, the present administration is wholly committed not just to alleviating poverty put to perusing a course aimed at eventually eradicating it. It’s already set in place programmes to slash the numbers of those at the poverty line by 25% within three years. Duterte’s very first Executive Order – signed the same day he took his Oath of Office – brought together 12 separate government agencies and tasked them with providing solutions to food security and poverty issues.

Last October, Duterte signed another Executive Order which formally adopted Ambisyon Natin 2040 – a plan initiated by the Aquino administration that seeks to eradicate poverty by 2040. “By 2040, the Philippines shall be a prosperous, predominantly middle-class society where no one is poor; our people shall live long and healthy lives, be smart and innovative, and shall live in a high-trust society,” the order stated.

Because poverty reduction is central to the government’s socio-economic agenda, we expect it will be among the topics which the president will focus on when he comes to present his own SONA. Then we should have a far clearer view of just what has been achieved. 

Lagman stated that while initially the talks seemed promising, they are now “back to the drawing board”.

Back to Lagman’s SONA. “The projected peace accord with the Muslim separatists has [sic] not even started when martial law was declared in Marawi City and the entire Mindanao,” he said. Which peace talks is he referring to – the ones that seek to reach agreement on Bangsamoro, the proposed autonomous homeland for the Moro (Muslim) people of the south?

Wasn’t that the one which his party promised to deliver by the end of Aquino’s term? The one that went into self-imposed hibernation after an abortive attempt by members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) to capture two high-worth terrorists ended in the death of 44 SAF officers?

And certainly, the invasion of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, did change the complexion of peace efforts. But as that battle built, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – the party in peace talks with the government – offered support to Duterte to rescue civilians caught up in the fighting.

“We offered our help to our beloved president to help facilitate the coming out of civilians from their residences and the good president granted our request,” said MILF vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar. That would suggest to us that while the peace process per se is not the prime focus in that quarter of Mindanao right now, the relationship between the two parties remains very much in tact.

All that makes the following statement from Lagman seem rather shallow and shows it up for what it is; a blatant attempt at political point scoring. Here’s what he said: “The precipitate and unwarranted declaration of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao have pushed back the peace settlement with the mainstream Muslim insurgents farther to the periphery”.

Of the negotiations with the Leninist-Marxist National Democratic Front – representing the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) – Lagman stated that while initially the talks seemed promising, they are now “back to the drawing board”.

And why is that? Because of some failure on Dutere’s part? Or perhaps it’s the fault of Jesus Dureza, the president’s main peace negotiator? Or was it possibly because the NPA dug in their heels and refused to allow the talks to proceed until the government freed 400 rebels from prison – something no government would agree to.

Lagman’s biggest contribution as a legislator – and one for which he deserves plenty of recognition – was as the main author of Aquino’s 2012 Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act.

Was it helped when the NPA broke an agreed ceasefire and started killing Filipino soldiers? Peace talks have no hope of prospering in that environment. So the government did what any rational government would do, it suspended the talks. What would Aquino have done, freed the rebels, buried his soldiers and carried on as if nothing happened?

Lagman’s biggest contribution as a legislator – and one for which he deserves plenty of recognition – was as the main author of Aquino’s 2012 Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act. He worked extremely hard on that legislation and in getting it passed. Against all odds he helped to pull off one of the biggest upsets in legislative history in the Philippines by allowing sex education and contraceptives to be made more readily available to the poor. The ‘purple revolution’ (photo) he spawned was grass roots and nationwide.

To keep it on track, he withstood a great deal of criticism from the Bill’s opponents – not least those in the Roman Catholic Church. Sorsogon Bishop, Arturo Bastes, said this about Lagman: “We do not have to excommunicate him… He is excommunicating himself by doing that. That is automatic, by himself. We don’t give him the honor to make him excommunicated”.

None of that can be taken away from him; that Act which he helped craft and propel into law, is a watershed piece of legislation and he’s assured of a footnote in history for it. That should be his legacy, not that he carried out hit jobs for the Liberal Party. All the more disappointing then is his pre-emptive strike at Duterte’s SONA.

Slamming the president – a man who’s certainly as dedicated to helping the poor as he is; a man who’s lived with the stench of death unleashed by communist and Muslim factions for much of his life in Mindanao, and craves peace – reeks of partisan politics.

Such machinations only debilitate; they never solve anything. They perpetuate the rot. And of course, the bill for that – as ever – will be presented to the poor. For while the politicians seek the limelight, those in the country in most need of their help are left to stumble in the shadows.

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