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Recovery plans, action against ‘oligarchs’ highlighted in SONA 2020

On Monday, July 27, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City. Duterte’s address—which, unlike his previous SONAs, began on-time at 4 pm—tackled concerns over the country’s economic recovery and highlighted milestones under his administration.

Yet, the President also took the opportunity to criticize “oligarchs”, an opposition senator, and telecommunication giants in his speech. Duterte also appealed to Congress to approve priority bills and to reinstate the controversial death penalty by lethal injection. 

To comply with physical distancing measures, only a small number of lawmakers were in attendance for the event, while other guests witnessed the speech through Zoom instead.

Constrained economy

Touting a strong fiscal position, the President affirmed that the Philippines is “in a better position to weather the crisis caused by [the] COVID-19 global pandemic.” He highlighted the country’s current credit rating of BBB+ and “robust” banking system—crucial tools to help the country weather the crisis.

Despite the dire straits faced by the education sector, Duterte reiterated that the distance learning policy will stay firmly in place, avowing that he will not risk the health of teachers and students. 

“Until the COVID-19 vaccine is available, I will not allow the traditional face-to-face teaching,” he stressed.

The President also noted his reluctance to reopen economic sectors quickly. “Whatever good it can produce will only be gobbled up, or be outweighed, by the bad it will generate,” he said, citing how countries like the  United States reopened “too early [and] too soon” and saw a surge in new reported cases.

Instead, Duterte doubled down on the need to wait for a vaccine, even proposing to make “a plea to [Chinese] President Xi Jinping” to make the Philippines a priority once the vaccine has been developed.

In terms of financial assistance, the President reported that P205-billion is already allotted for low-income households. Under the Labor Department’s COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program, financial aid has been given to “over 650,000 affected individuals in the formal sector, 110,000 OFWs abroad, and almost 83,000 repatriated OFWs.”

For small businesses, meanwhile, Duterte revealed that 2,600 loan applications amounting to P182.5-million have already been approved by the Department of Trade and Industry. These interest-free loans, he added, are part of a P1-billion fund set up for COVID-19.

The President also announced the creation of a “National Disease Prevention and Management Authority” to address future disasters. This is in line with his plan to hire “more than 20,000 health professionals” by 2021 to improve health facilities in isolated Local Government Units. 

Duterte promised to fight the pandemic “with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency, and corruption in high places and entrenched parochial interests.”

‘Oligarchs’, telcos targeted

In a surprise change of topic, Duterte once again attacked “oligarchs” and singled out Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who he accused of defending oligarchs and taking advantage of a “preoccupied government”. 

Drilon, Duterte alleged, had played a role in crafting the water concession agreement between Ayala-owned Manila Water and the government back in 1997. The senator, however, denied any involvement, pointing out that he had already retired from ACCRA, the law firm that helped draft the contract, in 1986. 

The chief executive also railed against ABS-CBN, whose franchise renewal was recently denied in the House of Representatives, and the “oligarch” Lopez family. 

“Media is a powerful tool in the hands of oligarchs like the Lopezes who use their media outlets in their battles with political figures,” he said, adding that he was “a casualty of the Lopezes during the 2016 elections”.

The President gave ominous warnings to telecommunication companies Smart Communications, owned by Manny Pangilinan, and Globe Telecom, controlled by the Ayala Corporation, to improve their services by December or face “closure”. He asserted that in the next two years, he would improve the country’s telecommunications services by working with lawmakers. “I will find a way. I will talk to Congress and find a way to do it,” he declared. 

Death penalty pushed

Recalling his issuance of Executive Order No. 92 which created the National Council against Child Labor, Duterte assured that government efforts to protect the rights of children will be “amplified”. 

With this, the President vocally pushed for the reimposition of the death penalty by lethal injection for drug traffickers, calling on lawmakers to allow its “swift passage” into law. “This law will not only help us deter criminality but also save our children from the dangers posed by illegal drugs,” he reasoned. 

This, despite stating earlier in his speech that his administration “will not dodge our obligation to fight for human rights.” He also gave a stern warning to those who commit drug-related crimes in the country, saying, “I will really kill you. That is a commitment.”

Priority bills outlined

Apart from the death penalty, Duterte asked Congress to pass a number of other legislations, one of which is the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2, which earmarks P140-billion as a standby fund to support the government’s COVID-19 response efforts. In a 22-1 vote, the Senate approved the measure last July 28, a day after Duterte’s speech.

He also urged lawmakers to pass the bill that calls for the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipinos and the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives Enterprises Act, which would cut corporate taxes and “rationalize” tax breaks. 

Duterte again put his sights on the state of Boracay, this time calling for a measure creating the Boracay Island Development Authority. “We have shared [the] remarkable emergence of the island back to its former glory. I want this sustained,” he said, adding that he hopes to see “concerted efforts in protecting the environment” for the rest of his term.

The chief executive also asked Congress to back the creation of a coconut trust fund owing to the still unresolved fate of the Coco levy funds. Duterte had vetoed an earlier coco levy fund proposal last February 2019, citing a lack in vital safeguards.

Meanwhile, he appealed to landlords and property lessors across the country to show compassion for their tenants as ordinary citizens continue to face financial challenges. Commercial establishments, the President said, should provide “grace periods” for small businesses leasing spaces, underlining the need to help them recover at the height of the pandemic.   

While no surveys on the President’s performance have been conducted yet this year due to the pandemic, a Social Weather Stations survey last May found that 83 percent of Filipinos said their quality of life declined. Meanwhile, 43 percent of the respondents expected their quality of life to worsen in the next 12 months as the pandemic drags on.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, Duterte asked his constituents to “continue to put your faith in your government and work with us in achieving what is best for our country and our people.” 

“Together, let us do…the most that we can to ensure that the health, safety and well-being of every Filipino—especially those severely affected—are taken care of,” he said.

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