The original arrangement this morning was that because “Minority Leader” Marcelino “Nonoy” Libanan was not yet ready to deliver his Counter SONA, I can proceed to deliver my Counter SONA this afternoon as I am already prepared to do so. But as the “Minority Leader” has decided to deliver his Counter SONA today, I was expecting that I would also be delivering my critique of President Marcos, Jr.’s State of the Nation Address after him.
Since by tradition, the authentic opposition’s Counter SONA is delivered the day after the President delivers his SONA, I have decided to furnish the media and the Plenary Support Service of the House for the record, a copy of my Counter SONA.
COUNTER SONA FROM AN AUTHENTIC OPPOSITION’S PERSPECTIVE
by: Rep. Edcel C. Lagman, July 26, 2022
Mr. Speaker and my distinguished Colleagues, let me start by expressing my disappointment and disenchantment in the new House leadership’s and the new administration’s perpetuating the practice of anointing the majority’s minority leader. This is an open secret, a brutal fact.
A eunuch of a minority leader who is a convenient adjunct of the majority coalition makes parliamentary democracy a shameful farce.
Seeking refuge under the wings of the ruling majority at the expense of one’s convictions is abhorrent. Self-respect is precious. It is not a commodity for partisan haggling.
But some rationalize that that is how the cookie crumbles. But a cookie of stronger stuff does not crumble!
Mr. Speaker, I am delivering this Counter SONA as an opposition member of the House who is not beholden to the majority, and who is ready to expose the administration’s importuning and excesses but will critically cooperate with the ruling coalition once necessary in the interest of the nation.
Mr. Speaker, in addition to a documentation of the State of the Nation, the SONA of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is a wish list which the people want to hear, like, among others:
- The state of the nation is sound.
- Will not “abandon even a square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power.”
- Universal connectivity.
- President’s order to DOTR: “full speed ahead”.
- Digitalization as a component of education.
- More generic medicines in the market to reduce prices.
- More comprehensive assistance to individuals in crisis situation (AICS) under the DSWD.
There is no problem in highlighting a wish list as long as there is a firm resolve and a budgetary recourse to achieve what is wished for.
There is also no problem in incanting what the people desire to hear, but more important is what the people urgently need.
Compendium of Hopes
The SONA was also a compendium of hopes for the nation – hope for an 8% GDP growth rate; for inflation to decline to 2.0 to 4.0% by 2024 until 2028; for a 9% poverty incidence by 2028; for disbursements at above 20% of GDP until 2028; for the peso-to-dollar exchange rate to level off at P51 to P55 to a dollar from 2023 onwards; for specialty hospitals to operate in the Regions; for sustained infrastructure development spending at 5% of GDP; for the massive development of rail transport systems; for the full development of renewable energy; hope for a better life, hope for peace and unity, hope for survival, hope for the hopeless.
There is again nothing wrong with hoping as long as solutions are forged bridging aspirations to fulfillment, which again requires sufficient budgetary allocations.
Agenda for Economic Recovery: A Critique
Mr. Speaker, as confirmed by the new President, we lost two years to the pandemic. It is incumbent on the new administration to embark on the road to economic recovery and pursue a definitive exit from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Principally because of the pandemic, real GDP in 2020 was 9.6% lower than the 2019 GDP of P19.35-trillion. Real GDP in 2021 was higher than the 2020 GDP, but was still lower than the 2019 GDP.
A ray of hope shone in the first quarter of this year. The economy had a quarterly growth of 8.3%. For the first time after eight straight quarters, the quarterly GDP was higher than the GDP in the same quarter before the pandemic.
Economic recovery appears to have begun. Much of the productive activity in the first quarter of 2021 was attributed to the manufacturing and services sectors which grew by 10.4% and 8.6% respectively, which is relatively good. However, the agricultural sector grew but only by a feeble 0.2%, which is utterly unfortunate.
It must also be noted that the first and second quarters of 2022 were exceptional since the electoral exercise poured much money into the economy. No similar stimulation is expected for the remaining quarters of the year to parallel the same growth numbers.
The President failed to specify how the economic growth will rise to 6.5% by the end of 2022. A 6.5% growth rate will give a GDP of P19.72 trillion in 2022, higher than the P19.35 trillion GDP before the pandemic.
Immediate Economic Concerns
Before the current administration drumbeats its medium- and long-term economic targets, it needs to confront short-term economic concerns.
A recent Pulse Asia survey revealed that the concerns of Filipinos are chiefly economic. And the number one concern is inflation. No less than 57% of Filipinos surveyed made this disclosure.
Inflation means less goods and services can be bought by a given amount of money. If the goods and services are sorely needed and not just wanted, inflation will be harmful. Alternatively, inflation means more money is required for the purchase of a given volume of goods and services. This can be equally harmful. In fact, the same Pulse Asia survey showed that low income is the second highest concern among Filipinos.
The initial average nationwide monthly inflation rate in 2022 has been 4.4%, higher than the self-imposed 4% upper limit set by the Bangko Sentral. What is worrisome is that the monthly rate has been rising steadily for the past 5 months from 3% in February to 6.1% in June. By the end of the year, the average inflation rate will definitely exceed 4.4%.
The new administration should be more specific on how the inflation rate can be contained.
The Medium-Term Growth Target
Mr. Speaker, the current administration aims to attain and maintain, starting 2023, an annual GDP growth of 6.5% to 8.0%. The projection is not unrealistic. The Aquino administration already did 7.33% in 2010.
But legislators and the people want to know how this target will be achieved.
The Poverty Reduction Target
Another administration target is the reduction of poverty incidence to 9% by 2028, which the President did not reiterate in his SONA.
Poverty reduction has always been a laudable endeavor. However, it has been attended by issues on concepts and methodology such as the definition of poverty, the determination of the poverty threshold, and the conduct of the poverty surveys.
For example, aside from the official Annual Poverty Indicator Survey by the Philippine Statistics Authority, there is the enlightening self-rated survey by the Social Weather Stations.
How do we reconcile the 48% poverty incidence result of the June 2021 SWS survey among families with the 18% PSA figure for the first half of 2021? The discrepancy is glaring. This widens if account is taken of the "borderline poor" category of the SWS. This special category, taking up 29% of families surveyed, suggests that poverty incidence may be between 48 to 77%.
I trust that the issues raised will be resolved.
Unlike the GDP growth target which had been previously achieved, the 9% poverty incidence target has never been achieved in the past.
We can only say good luck to the administration's admirable endeavor to bring down poverty incidence to 9% by 2028. In all candor, the administration’s poverty reduction target may be more imaginary than imaginative.
Debt-to-GDP and Deficit-to-GDP Ratio Targets
Mr. Speaker, the new administration aims to bring down the country's debt-to-GDP ratio, which stood at 63.5% as of the first quarter of this year, to less than 60% by 2025.
Countries are, however, weighed down by the size not so much of the debt itself but of the payments required to service it.
It must be underscored that when Duterte became president in 2016, the national debt was less than P6 trillion. This was more than doubled to P12.68 trillion as of March 2022.
Consequently, the corresponding debt service was staggering. For the first time, the P1.2 trillion debt service in 2021 exceeded P1 trillion.
It was six times the budget for health and was almost P500 billion more than the education budget. One can only dream of the number of health centers, hospitals, and school buildings it could have constructed, the number of new nurses and teachers it could have hired, or the size of salary increases it could have granted to government employees.
Verily, the attainability of the President’s wish list and hopes will have to contend with the gargantuan debt service.
It also mainly triggered the huge P1.67 trillion budget deficit in 2021.
Can the budget deficit be reduced?
Debt service cannot be tinkered with as it is automatically appropriated in accordance with PD 1177 of martial law vintage. Neither can government expenditure on social and economic services for a growing population be reduced. It should in fact be increased.
The only way to reduce debt service in the future is to exercise prudence in contracting new loans. And corruption in government should be reduced, and if possible extinguished.
The revenue side of the budget, particularly tax revenue, must be examined. Tax collection efficiency must be improved. I recently filed a bill to help inculcate tax consciousness. People must be made to feel that paying taxes willingly and promptly is their contribution to national development. The bill requires tax education from the elementary through college levels.
According to Finance Secretary Ben Diokno one source of strength is our ample Gross International Reserves (G.I.R.) to meet external obligations. While the amount is concededly comfortable, we need to guard against its dissipation. The steady fall of the G.I.R. from $107.8 billion in February 2022 to $100.9 billion in June will have to be explained.
Agriculture Woes and Solutions
Mr. Speaker, the scarcity of food supply due to low agricultural production and escalating inflation rates, as an effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that disrupted world supply of oil, wheat, and fertilizer, are the double whammies that spiral the prices of food commodities.
This dilemma impelled President Marcos, Jr. to temporarily take the helm of the Agriculture Department.
Historically, agriculture has been discriminated against in budgetary allocations. Although in recent years the allocation for agriculture has increased, the increment is not substantial and far from being adequate.
It behooves the new administration to significantly increase the budget for agriculture to approximate the appropriations of other ASEAN countries which have higher budgets for agriculture: Indonesia (3.4%), Thailand (3.6%), and Vietnam (6.5%) of their national budget.
Smuggling of agricultural products and inputs aggravates the problem of the agricultural sector. Smuggling dampens farm production and increases income inequality and poverty. It also deprives the government of much needed revenues. Moreover, smuggling causes the illicit entry of unsanitary food products which escape quarantine inspection.
Instead of simply blaming the Department of Agriculture for the rampant smuggling in the country, the buck actually stops at the Bureau of Customs.
In addition to the initiatives of the new administration to intensify the construction of farm-to-market roads, which plan has been opposed by farmers and fishers who want the government to prioritize subsidy to food producers; the government-to-government importation of fertilizers; providing farmers and fishers with adequate subsidies and concessionary credit facilities; and mechanization of farming, the new administration must also undertake the following:
- Repair and construction of irrigation systems to counter the advantage of Vietnam and Thailand which have the mighty Mekong River irrigating their vast farmlands.
- Finance and encourage domestic production of farm inputs as well as the mixed usage of organic fertilizers.
- Improve post-harvest facilities to minimize wastage, increase production outputs and empower the marginalized local producers.
- Fund and encourage the cultivation and production of local products like abaca, copra, and pili, where the Philippines has comparative advantage.
- Minimize dependence on food imports.
- Food production must be encouraged and implemented as a community program under the auspices of LGUs and NGOs. School and family gardens can help supplement food supply.
Mr. Speaker, as long as rice, the country’s staple food, is used as a political commodity, the rise and fall of rice prices and production will follow the cadence of the political baton.
Rice must be immune from partisan politics in order to assure relative rice sufficiency at reasonable prices with the rice farmers getting what is due them.
Acknowledging Human Rights Violations During Marcos, Sr.’s Martial Law as Indispensable to Achieving National Unity
Mr. Speaker, the new President glaringly failed to mention in his SONA his stand on human rights.
In his inaugural speech President Marcos, Jr. emphatically declared: “I am here not to talk about the past. I am here to tell you about the future… We do not look back but ahead…”
Pero hindi ba may kasabihan tayong mga Pilipino na: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makararating sa paroroonan.”
The President should be reminded that it is imperative to talk about the past. That to be silent about the past is to obliterate it together with the lessons and guidance that it provides; the milestones that we must build on today toward a better future; as well as the blunders that we should rectify and resolve never to repeat.
We should also remember the wisdom of Epifanio de los Santos, after whom we named the historic EDSA, who said: “Writing history is writing the soul of the past … so that the present generation may learn from past mistakes, be inspired by their ancestor’s sacrifices, and take responsibility for the future.”
Many self-sacrificing Filipino patriots and nationalists followed in the footsteps of our ancestors. Lamentably, instead of being hailed heroes they were falsely labeled “enemies of the State”. Thousands of these activists and human rights defenders became victims of atrocities during the Marcos, Sr. martial law regime and even during the subsequent Administrations.
“Unity” has been the clarion call of Marcos, Jr. since the electoral campaign. Starkly absent from this call are the concrete bases of unity. For the victims and survivors of human rights violations there can be no reconciliation, much less unity, without truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition of the State-sponsored brutalities. It is incumbent for the new administration to institute reforms to ensure realization of these four pillars of dealing with the past and to permanently rid the country of human rights transgressions.
After his meeting with President Marcos, Jr., UN Resident Coordinator Gustavo Gonzales announced that the Chief Executive committed to support the human rights agenda of the United Nations Joint Programme (UNJP), particularly the “enhancement of accountability in terms of human rights”.
Government as a UN partner must help steer the UNJP toward a victim-centered course. It should simultaneously create an enabling environment where human rights defenders can freely exercise their rights and work without undue restrictions.
This inevitably necessitates a paradigm shift in the anti-insurgency, counter-terrorism and drug war programs and policies that give primacy to national security and public order at the expense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Mr. Speaker, human rights violations are not a monopoly of the Marcos, Sr. regime. They have persisted up to the present. Hence, the imperative of appropriate institutional reforms from decision-making to policy implementation.
It is hoped that President Marcos, Jr. has the courage, determination, and leadership to effectively respect, protect, and fulfill human rights in accordance with the unmistakable mandate of the Constitution and the internationally accepted norms and standards in numerous international instruments to which the Philippines is a State Party.
Concomitantly, the new administration is likewise urged to:
Accede to the remaining core treaty to which the Philippines is not yet a State party – the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance;
Re-accede to the Rome Statute from which the Philippines withdrew at the behest of former President Duterte and commit to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into the crimes against humanity committed during the Duterte administration;
Dialogue with the human rights violations survivors particularly those victimized during the Marcos, Sr. rule;
Exact accountability from all human rights violators from the Marcos, Sr. regime to the Duterte administration, and end impunity;
Jettison historical distortion and dismantle the deceitful massive and well-entrenched infrastructure of disinformation facilitating historical distortion and mass amnesia; and
Certify as a priority measure the Human Rights Defenders Protection bill which was passed by the House on third reading in the 17th and 18th Congresses.
Rightsizing or downsizing?
Mr. Speaker, it is a given that the government is the biggest employer.
Amidst serious unemployment and under-employment, is it politically incorrect to downsize but politically correct to rightsize?
The new administration is poised to rightsize the bureaucracy involving millions of public sector workers who have yet to be consulted about the plan.
From an ill-advised and provocative statement that P14.8 billion per year would be saved from rightsizing the bureaucracy, the initial announcement has been tempered and clarified by Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman that the “overarching objective of rightsizing is to have a small but agile and responsive bureaucracy that suits the times. The program will reform those agencies with repetitive or overlapping functions.”
Truly, budgetary savings are not the end goal of rightsizing.
Equally true is that any rightsizing or downsizing of the bureaucracy needs the prior authorization of and delegation from the Congress and the Legislature’s subsequent approval or rejection of the reorganization plan made by its delegate, the President of the Republic.
This is so because the Congress has the inherent power to create and dissolve public offices and personnel complement.
The President is fully aware of this since his first legislative proposal is the enactment of a National Government Rightsizing Program.
Historically and paradoxically, all plans to rightsize or downsize the bureaucracy resulted in its bloating.
The pitfalls of partisan patronage must be avoided and the demands for expansion of favored agencies must be rationalized.
The following caveats are also in order:
- Public sector unions or government employees’ associations must be allowed to actively participate in crafting the reorganization plan;
- Prioritize scrapping of contractualization through job orders and contracts of service and fill up necessary vacant positions;
- Conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of the bureaucracy’s structure and staffing pattern to determine where redundancy exists;
- Observe security of tenure;
- Retrenchment should be coupled with alternative job offerings for those still willing to work; and
- Retirement and separation benefits must be provided to those who opt to retire or cease government service.
Other Major Labor Concerns
Aside from emphasizing protection to our OFWs, the President failed to mention other major labor concerns.
History has shown that labor has actively joined or even led movements for economic reforms, democratic rights, social change, and national sovereignty.
In recognition of labor’s invaluable role in economic development and nation building, their rights are constitutionally guaranteed.
Realizing the closely linked rights to security of tenure, self-organization, and a living wage has been an uphill battle punctuated with violent transgressions.
Contractualization has been a scourge to labor since the implementation of Article 281 of the Labor Code during the Marcos Sr. regime and continues to plague labor today. It patently denies workers security of tenure, just compensation or a living wage, legally mandated benefits, and the right to self-organization. All this lowers the morale and productivity of contractuals as ENDO before end of their six-month contractual employment hangs like a sword of Damocles over their heads, thus depriving them of regularization and its concomitant benefits.
Security of tenure can be observed. A living wage can be attained. Self-organization can be exercised. These rights can all be fulfilled if government and capital would realize that respecting and protecting them would make workers happy, work with dignity and motivated to be more productive as they contribute to the growth of the economy.
Protecting labor must parallel the President’s taking the cudgels for agrarian reform beneficiaries.
Asserting Our Victory in the West Philippine Sea
Mr. Speaker, resort to diplomacy fortifies peace. Diplomacy, however, may be futile to enforce compliance on a recidivist aggressor who has contempt for rule-based international order.
Motherhood statements on upholding Philippine sovereignty and pursuing an independent foreign policy will never suffice.
President Marcos, Jr., must heed the overwhelming support of the Filipino people, 89% of whom wants the new President to assert the six-year old arbitral award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). This is also supported by the endorsements of his policy advisers, principally Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo who said that the arbitral ruling and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are the twin anchors of Philippine foreign policy in the West Philippines Sea (WPS).
We also need to expand our military alliances with friendly nations in order to deter further maritime terrorism in the WPS.
The new administration must make up for the years squandered by the previous Duterte administration and its culpable inaction in asserting our clear victory and incontrovertible sovereignty over the resource-rich West Philippine Sea.
Addressing Population Issues and Achieving Sustainable Human Development
Mr. Speaker, worldwide, the Philippines is only 64th in terms of land area translating to a mere 0.2% of the world’s total land size but we are the 13th most populous nation in the world.
The United Nations states that more than 50% of the estimated increase in the world’s population from 2022 to 2050 – or around 850 million people – is expected to come from only eight countries including the Philippines. This will make the Philippines one of the biggest contributors to world population growth in the next three decades because our previous unmitigated population explosion created a huge base of women of reproductive age.
This is not good news. But the good news is we have a rights-based, health-oriented, and development-driven Reproductive Health Law that has helped women and couples meet their fertility goals as they are empowered to freely exercise their inherent right to determine the number and spacing of their children.
The RH Law will not only contribute significantly to the lowering of our population growth and fertility rates, it will also prevent maternal death and disability, greatly improve infant health and survival, and help reduce the incidence of abortion by preventing unwanted pregnancies.
The least expensive mode of helping attain sustainable human development is the full and expeditious implementation of the RH law with appropriate and sustained funding. It needs less funding compared to mega projects but has a much larger base of beneficiaries.
The effective implementation of the RH Law will help reduce poverty and achieve sustainable human development because it is an indispensable development tool.
Clearly, the issues of population, poverty, reproductive health, and sustainable human development are so closely interconnected that none of them can be considered in isolation.
We urge the new Marcos administration to adequately fund the RH Law and allied statutes because a sound national population policy is an integral part of good governance, a policy direction which the new President failed to articulate.
There is no denying that well-funded national programs on family planning and reproductive health are not only pro-woman and pro-poor. Ultimately, they are also pro-life and pro-sustainable human development.
Mr. Speaker, the President should be complemented in declaring that issues on the implementation of the Mandanas-Garcia ruling will be ironed out.
Executive Order No. 138 issued on June 1, 2021 by former President Duterte emasculated the Mandanas-Garcia Supreme Court ruling. It virtually sequestered the LGUs’ incremental IRA by requiring local governments to fund from their additional IRA local projects which were previously financed by the national government.
The well-intended bonanza to LGUs became a dismal disaster. Virtually nothing is left to the discretion of LGUs in utilizing their additional IRA.
The new administration is urged to review the subject EO and repeal the same in order to give meaning to the Mandanas-Garcia ruling and give more funds to LGUs for their disposal as envisioned by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the said EO appears to have unlawfully amended the Local Government Code on IRA provisions.
Mr. Speaker, why is there inordinate alacrity from some Members of the House to grant a President “emergency powers” as if contingencies, like the escalating inflation rate, cannot be addressed and mitigated without granting the Chief Executive emergency or special powers?
The President is not even asking for it.
The President has a vast arsenal of mandated and inherent powers under the Constitution and existing special statutes on price control, hoarding, cartels, and illegal trade practices to meet emergency situations without the need for any emergency authorization from the Congress.
Mr. Speaker, while the Congress is an equal partner of the Chief Executive, it is ascendant in the appropriation of public funds and the formulation of overriding national policies.
The Congress must be its own dominant guardian in protecting its constitutional domain from incursion, derogation, and self-imposed abdication.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker and my distinguished Colleagues.