FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Nowhere else is the delivery of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) such grand political theater.

In our case, bona fide film directors have been hired to oversee the visuals of the event. Everybody who is anybody dresses up to be seen – such that the event has become the grandest fashion show in town.

SONA Day is the traditional town fiesta writ large. It is the only time officials of the three branches of government sit together, along with the entire diplomatic corps and senior officers of our security services.

The festival extends beyond the session hall of the House of Representatives and spills onto the streets around the venue. Leftist groups seize on the event as an opportunity to wage propaganda. Recalling how the First Quarter Storm broke out after riots following the 1970 SONA of freshly reelected Ferdinand E. Marcos, they have tried every year to recreate the same dynamic of polarization.

There is particular excitement over next Monday’s SONA.

It will be the maiden address of a freshly elected president. President BBM accessed the office with the most number of votes ever. He leads a multiparty coalition that overwhelmingly dominates both chamber of Congress.

Most important, he now presides over a very critical time for the nation. We have not fully emerged from a devastating pandemic. Our economic recovery faces strong headwinds from adverse global trends: inflation-inducing energy costs, possible food shortages brought about by the conflict in Ukraine, a possible international recession, a much higher debt load brought about by pandemic spending and a people earnestly waiting for signs the future will be better.

This is not a particularly healthy time for any national leader. Angry Sri Lankans just chased out their president. In Italy, Prime Minister Draghi resigned this week, setting the stage for suspenseful snap elections. In the US, Joe Biden has been posting approval numbers lower than Donald Trump’s. His own Conservative Party threw out Boris Johnson.

The whole world is reeling from an inflationary surge induced by sharply higher energy costs. This surge could lead to a recession. Governments are under pressure from rising disaffection that could channel in the most unexpected ways.

The context for next Monday’s SONA is distinctly unwholesome.

Totally dependent on imported fossil fuels, our economy is badly hit by the spike in energy costs. Higher transport costs reflect in higher food prices. Access to food tightens as a consequence and this could convert into higher poverty rates. Our dilapidated educational system takes a toll on the competitiveness of our workers. A failed agriculture will take many years to repair.

Everyone expects from the new President a magic solution to a complicated national situation. This puts pressure on the new President to deliver a vision that is encompassing but not hollow, ambitious but doable.

At the core, the State of the Nation Address, despite what it is traditionally called, is basically supposed to deliver the Chief Executive’s legislative agenda. It is a speech that justifies the contours of the proposed budget to the branch of government that holds power over the purse. It is a speech that calls for inter-branch cooperation on a course of action to deal with the challenges of the day.

The speech, of course, presupposes that, after only a few weeks in office, the new President has crafted a complete policy course for his administration. That might be an unfair presupposition. But tradition and ceremony requires it.

At the top of mind of our public, as in almost everywhere else, is the spike in inflation. Rapidly rising prices, like a wild epidemic, spreads misery all around. Although the elevated inflation we are experiencing is driven by fuel and flour prices determined globally, people somehow expect government to have the means to arrest the spread of misery.

The new Chief Executive must be cautioned against promising too much about cushioning the effects of inflation. All the pandemic-related debt we accumulated militates against any extended subsidy program to assist the most vulnerable sectors. We can seek international support to ensure sufficient fuel, fertilizer and flour supplies. But we cannot make promises about their prices. The market determines that.

President BBM will likely commit to support the revival of our enterprises. This is essential to job creation and economic expansion. But government cannot absorb the business risks of these enterprises.

The new Chief Executive could promise sweeping reform of our educational system and more substantial funding to upgrade it. This is something that has to be done, at whatever cost. The fate of the next generation depends on this.

Some things will have to be said about the sad state of our agriculture. But it is unlikely the President will ask Congress to roll back the Rice Tariffication Law. Doing so will only fuel inflation. Recall that rice prices were the principal drivers of domestic inflation until we liberalized trading.

The President may promise our farmers more support in terms of subsidized irrigation and more farm-to-market roads. He might even announce government-to-government initiatives to acquire more fertilizers to increase yield. But nothing will truly change in our agriculture until we roll back land reform and allow land to be consolidated to achieve economies of scale and open the way to mechanization.

To be sure, President BBM is hesitant about introducing new taxes to enable us to pay down the pandemic debt. But something needs to be done to maintain our fiscal stability.


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