The first State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Rodrigo Duterte has been met with nearly unanimous appreciation from various sections of the country’s political spectrum.
Almost 3 times longer than earlier estimates from the Palace, the president’s speech indeed has many points that renew hope in the promise of change under the new administration.
Foremost among this is his announcement of a unilateral ceasefire with the New People’s Army, which Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the negotiating panel of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), readily welcomed. The NDFP said that it “would be able to respond to or reciprocate the unilateral ceasefire declaration of the GRP soon after receiving its full text.”
Yet all is not well and good.
While Duterte’s frank, straightforward, and unapologetic style of public speaking has made several legislators and public figures describe his message as “heartfelt”, a deeper analysis of his pronouncements reveal the calibrated nature of the vision for change he seeks for the nation.
Broad strokes for reform
Typical of an agenda-setting policy speech, Duterte has drawn in broad strokes his administration’s commitment to being “sensitive to the State’s obligations to promote, protect, fulfill the rights of our citizens, especially the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable.”
He outlined a plan to improve basic services – from trains to agricultural support infrastructure, to a roadmap for better Internet and the streamlining of processing common government requirements.
These broad strokes for reform, however, show the carefully calibrated approach of the new president towards reform – a delicate balancing act meant to respond to the interest of both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, he aims to respond to the pressing demands of the people, yet on the other hand, he also wants to please big business and the political elite.
Such calibrated approach to change is clearly illustrated in his call for tax reform. While he seeks cuts in personal tax, he also wants to cut corporate tax. For the president, there is a need to always and always seek for a middle ground, a win-win situation.
However, this calibrated approach hinders Duterte from fully pursuing progressive changes, as shown in his reservation about supporting a solid plan for economic restructuring. This is highlighted in a sentence uttered by the president on the economy: “On the macroeconomic management, my administration will continue and maintain current macroeconomic policies, and even do better.”
What is worrying about this stance is that it implies a “business as usual” attitude towards managing the economy. It implies the continuation of fiscal and monetary policies that seek to artificially expand the economy, believing that “high growth” based on investor activity can translate to a significant reduction in unemployment and poverty.
Continuing past economic policies translate to the continuation of neoliberalism, a dominant stream of economic thought that puts a premium on removing “friction points” on the flow of capital and advocating free trade through eased government regulation and control.
If Duterte truly intends to continue the fiscal policies of past administrations, it means that he will still push for lucrative infrastructure projects through private-public partnerships and his economic managers will prioritize incentivizing investors in an effort to sustain foreign direct investments.
Subscribing to the same old neoliberal agenda also implies that the upcoming move for federalism will include substantial changes to the Constitution that will lift restrictions on foreign ownership of land and other economic activities.
Such pronouncement should be cause for us to pause and think. Will continuing pro-big business policies truly uplift the lives of the vulnerable and the marginalized? Even the International Monetary Fund – one of the primary endorsers of neoliberalism – has recently released a paper entitled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” which questions the effectiveness of the decades-old framework and even raises questions on how neoliberalism and the free trade policies that it birthed caused inequality.
In a briefing for senior executives last July 20, National Economic and Development Authority Director Reynaldo Cancio identified challenges in the country’s socio-economic performance, which include high income inequality and “wide disparities” in average incomes across regions. Continuing the neoliberal framework that creates wealth for the few will not address these pressing concerns.
Duterte has twice mentioned “industrialization” in his SONA, though no concrete pathway has been offered. If Duterte truly intends to create decent jobs and uplift the people from poverty, his administration should focus on building Filipino industries and developing the agriculture sector, starting off with a genuine agrarian reform program. These elements are, however, conspicuously absent in his first SONA.
Indeed, while the president outlined several pragmatic and laudable changes, there is still a lot of room for critical engagement – not only on his economic vision but also on issues including human rights and the pursuit of peace. As the old saying goes, one cannot please everybody – and sooner or later the President needs to choose which interests his government should prioritize.
The lesson that the first SONA leaves us is that the president needs the voice of the people to guide him at each and every turn, lest he strays and reverts to the failed path to genuine growth and development taken by past administrations. – Rappler.com
Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan Partylist.