Making a Historic SONA

Dr. de Vera is a faculty member of the National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines. This article was published in the BusinessWorld Online edition, July 25, 2005.

It is this time of the year when Congress hosts the President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) for her yearly State of the Nation Address (SONA). Unlike in the United States (US) where citizens eagerly anticipate the State of the Union Address delivered with solemnity, tradition, and pageantry, most Filipinos do not pay attention to the SONA, much less understand its purpose and history.

But this year’s SONA will definitely be different. The usual pomp and pageantry will be overshadowed by the nightmare of “GMA Resign” groups massing outside the Batasan, the threat of a boycott by the opposition, and the public’s impatience to hear what the President will say about the Gloriagate tapes.

What exactly is the State of the Nation Address all about, and what should we expect when the President speaks before the joint houses of Congress this week?

American Colonial Tradition

The SONA is part and parcel of the institutions and processes that we inherited from the Americans during our colonial past.  As such, it is important to understand its historical beginnings in order to analyze the practice of various presidents in delivering a SONA and to know what to expect in a SONA.

In the US, the first “State of the Union” speech was delivered by George Washington in 1790 as part of the constitutional requirement that the President shall “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Article II, Sec. 3 of the US Constitution).

As originally conceived, the Address was supposed to be a conversation between the President and Congress and should contain legislative measures that require immediate action. The Address was also used to present the chief executive’s goals and agenda through broad ideas or specific detail.

Since Washington’s first speech to Congress, US Presidents have “from time to time” given Congress an assessment of the condition of the union. Giving a “State of the Union” speech was discretionary on the part of the President, and for more than 100 years (1801–1913) US Presidents did not find it necessary to talk to Congress about the State of the Union.

With the advent of radio and television (Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 speech was the first to be broadcast on radio while Harry Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be broadcast on television), the President’s annual message became not only a conversation between him and Congress but also an opportunity to communicate with the American people. The content, delivery, and objectives of the Address therefore changed because the President was now speaking to two audiences—Congress and the people. It was used to report on the achievements of the administration and rally public opinion to the side of the President.

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Philippine SONAs

Unlike in the US where the presidential address is discretionary, the Philippine Constitution requires the President to address Congress at the opening of its regular session (Article VII, Sec. 23). Much like the tenor of Washington’s initial Address that rallied congressional support for the federal union, the first State of the Nation Address delivered by President Manuel Roxas rallied Congress and the people to unite for independence and post-war reconstruction.

Succeeding Presidents used the SONA to deliver historic announcements and cement their place in history. The SONA was used to promote the Filipino First Policy (C. Garcia), decontrol and free trade (D. Macapagal), the New Society (F. Marcos), and Philippines 2000 (F. Ramos). In GMA’s first SONA, she highlighted indicators to measure government performance on the war against poverty.

GMA’s 2005 SONA

What then should we expect when GMA delivers her 2005 SONA and how should we measure her performance?

In order to determine accountability for executive and legislative performance after the SONA, the key question to ask is “who is the President speaking to in her SONA?”

If she is speaking to Congress, we should expect a workable legislative agenda that requires congressional action and then monitor whether the legislature enacts these bills into law within a year. If her SONA is directed at the Filipino people, then she must make an accounting of her past actions and respond to issues that Filipinos want addressed.

But what legislative action will GMA ask given that Congress has already passed the excise tax on sin products and value-added tax (VAT) laws? Political reforms, particularly charter change, appear to be her legislative agenda for this year. Can she call for a shift to parliamentary government and federalism in a situation where her own allies (M. Santiago and  R. Gordon) and critics (A. Pimentel, F. Drilon, and M. Roxas) are united in opposing charter change?  For Drilon, such a change would not solve the country’s economic and political woes.  For Roxas, it would make the situation more turbulent.  For Pimentel, it is better initiated by the next President.

And can she get cooperation from Congress when both the opposition (Pimentel, S. Osmena, F. Escudero, I. Marcos) and her former allies (Drilon, F. Pangilinan, and R. Golez) are leading the call for her resignation?

Then maybe she should call on Congress to expedite her impeachment!

If she decides to talk directly to the Filipino people to rally support for her administration, then she must go beyond admitting a “lapse in judgment” and answer the serious questions on the Gloriagate tapes—the poll rigging, abduction of witnesses, and military involvement in the elections.

If she is serious about going beyond her “lapse in judgment” statement, she should lead the hunt for Commission on Elections (COMELEC) Commissioner V. Garcillano, who is at the center of the wiretap controversy and who appears to be the main culprit in the alleged electoral fraud. She should take the initiative to revamp the COMELEC and ensure that all officials whose names were mentioned in the tape are brought to justice.

She should also talk about how she intends to stop jueteng and her family’s alleged receipt of jueteng payola.

And how about graft and corruption?

If what we have seen and heard from GMA and Malacañang in recent weeks is any indication of what the SONA will address, then we can expect a defensive, politically and personally driven theme.  The President seems to have used every available resource in her image-rebuilding campaign in an effort to dodge the bullet and ensure her stay in power.

Being forthright and accountable, however, will be the only way for President Arroyo to make the people start believing in her. Anything less only prolongs the political and economic agony besetting this nation. GMA would have then squandered her State of the Nation Address.

Better yet, the President can use the occasion to heed the call of the majority of Filipinos: Resign from public office and spare the Filipino people from further suffering. Indeed this would make the 2005 SONA the most historic of all SONAs and firmly cement her place in history.

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