POSTSCRIPT / July 27, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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'Twas more of a SOFA, or the state of the future

SIT DOWN: Having been in office for five years, President Gloria Arroyo should have devoted the traditional State of the Nation Address (SONA) to telling us the true state of affairs in the present, and not to telling us what she plans to do in the future.

Besides, having claimed victory in the presidential elections more than two years ago, it is way past the time for embarking on a catch-up campaign to win a mandate by regaling Congress and the nation with eye-popping promises.

Her address last Monday stretched to more than an hour (because of miscued applause), so she had all the time to tell us the state of the nation or explain the predicament of us Filipinos reeling from lower incomes and higher prices.

On the main, however, the PowerPoint-aided lecture of the doctor of economics came out — at least to me — more of a State of the Future Address (SOFA) than a SONA.

But that is all right. Tired as we are, at least we now have a sofa to sit on while dreaming with her.

* * *

SORRY NA LANG: There is nothing like being president.

Whatever the kibitzers in the gallery, the hecklers on the left and the marchers in the street say, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, wife of one Jose Miguel, is the president — and they are not.

Sorry na lang to the political opposition, to those outside looking in, to those craving for a shot of that inebriating power.

Up there at the rostrum, President Arroyo dictated the agenda for the nation. If her annual report to the republic’s stakeholders was long on promises and short on performance, that was the way she probably wanted it.

Too long have the media and that pondfull of political bullfrogs monopolized the national dialogue, dictating what the nation should talk about, with Malacanang simply reacting to the generally critical noise.

Now la Gloria grabbed the mike (small “m” there), dictated the talking points — at bahala na kayo lahat diyan mag-react o mainis.

* * *

BUDGET HEARING: For a while there, I thought the President had converted the joint opening session into a budget hearing of the public works and the tourism departments, except that she did not append the corresponding outlay for each project mentioned.

Also, while she was extravagant in her wish-list, she did not outline a strategy for raising the half trillion pesos needed. Maybe she did not have to, since, she claimed, the money was already there.

(It must be puzzlement to poor Juan Pasang Krus why we still cannot balance the budget, assuming Congress can pass it, if we already have the billions tucked under our pillow.)

In her final paragraph, the ebullient President caught herself and acknowledged that she may not be able to deliver on all the plans and projects mentioned in her SOFA. She said:

“After three years, 11 months, and six days, I shall relinquish the presidency, with much IF NOT ALL that I have outlined completed.” (All caps mine—fdp)

But as she talked, the possibility of partial failure after about four more years was of no moment. The whole point was to survive that annual test of facing the nation for an audit.

And she survived it — thanks to storm Glenda aiding the police, the supportive congressmen and local officials, and the PR (public relations) tricks woven into her speech.

* * *

NAMING GAME: Her drawing priority away from imperial Manila and involving local officials in development projects — and calling them in her SOFA by their first names — was a PR coup.

Let her foes claim Manila, which is incurably oppositionist anyway, but she would rule the countryside.

Her SOFA read like an Arcache society column. It was interesting reading not so much for its substance as for the names sprinkled all over it.

Whether SONA or SOFA, that annual report to the nation is a historic document. For one’s name to land in it must be something, especially to those whom Ms Arroyo wanted to draw around her.

There is a risk, however, in naming individuals. As in law, whoever is not included on the list is deemed excluded. For every person made happy by being mentioned in the SOFA, there are at least 10 others not mentioned who must be grumbling.

Some of us, btw, found it unusual that while she was dropping first names of local officials and rebel/military commanders, the President acknowledged the Speaker, former President Ramos and the Chief Justice only by their last names.

Is that the new protocol by the Pasig? Or was she telling them, and us, something?

* * *

JUST MAIL IT: Can we not dispense with this annual ritual borrowed from the Americans of having the President stand before the joint session and render a so-called State of the Nation Address?

The reporting can be shorn of the theatrics and PR gimmicks if done businesslike through the simple expedience of the President submitting — like she does with the national budget — a straightforward written report.

She may even opt to just mail it. To make sure it gets lost.

But it seems she really has to report in person. The last section of Article VII (Executive Department) of the Constitution ordains: “ Section 23. The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session. He may also appear before it at any other time.”

Btw, Section 22 before that section says that when the President sends to Congress a budget of expenditures as basis for the General Appropriations Act, which most of us call the national budget, it should be accompanied by a listing of sources of financing.

This was the reason why I remarked earlier that when the President submitted her wish-list of regional projects, she should have detailed also where to get the huge sum needed. Any proposal entailing expenditure must carry with it a source of funding.

* * *

NO CONTINUITY: One thing we need in this country is continuity. When we change presidents and local executives, we often throw out the policies and programs of the exiting administration and start all over again.

That is why we seem, especially to foreign eyes, to be always restarting. The worse part is that we often do not start only from zero, but from negative. The more we pretend to move the more we remain stagnant.

To businessmen and investors, this could be expensive since they have to fix the new executives after having fixed the previous ones.

We notice the same lack of continuity in the SOFA. After having presented a program last year, Ms Arroyo comes around this time presenting another set of programs and priorities.

* * *

REGROUPING: From nowhere, the President repartitioned the old-standing regions into what she called “super regions”: the North Luzon Agribusiness Quadrangle, the Metro Luzon Urban Beltway, Central Philippines, Mindanao, and the Cyber Corridor.

If progress in the new “super” groupings proves to be a bit slow, will she rearrange the provinces again and come up with another set of priority regions in the next SOFA? Nobody can tell since we lack continuity.

I was waiting for the President’s report on the many plans and projections she made with flourish in the SONA of the previous year. No update was made. The old promises seem to have been forgotten or replaced with new ones.

The President seems to think that, like a product that has to stay saleable, she has to show the people something new every SONA time. The old plans are thus discarded and new ones rushed for presentation.

I would rather that an apolitical National Economic and Development Authority, headed by the President, drew medium and long-range plans, stuck to them regardless of which political gang holds sway in Malacanang, and periodically reported updates.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 27, 2006)

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