The historic passage of the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law was supposed to be the centerpiece of President Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Monday. Instead, the naked power struggle that transpired between Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the chamber’s top post, in full view of the nation and the gathered diplomatic corps, effectively derailed the passage of the bill. The unexpected intramurals also stole the thunder from the President’s anticipated report to the nation.
But that wasn’t the only reason the 2018 Sona would be remembered as a surprising occasion. Mr. Duterte—known for rambling and long-winded speeches liberally peppered with irreverent asides and jokes—hewed closely to the script this time, almost getting down pat the 35-minute time limit he had promised. And, after weeks of jolting remarks against God and sundry detractors, the President changed tack by reining in the expletives. No verbal fireworks, not even when he upbraided human rights activists, mining companies, greedy land
developers and rice hoarders.
His speech struck the right note on a number of levels. As a policy roadmap laying out the order of business of his administration, it was short and straightforward, and clearly stated his marching orders to Congress: pass the stalled Bangsamoro Organic Law posthaste, which he promised to sign within 48 hours of delivery to his office; come up with a definitive law banning labor contractualization; establish a coconut farmers’ trust fund and a department of disaster management; craft a national land use bill, and an alternative law making it easier to import rice.
The President also went through a laundry list of how his administration has responded to the major concerns respondents had mentioned in a March 2018 Pulse Asia survey, such as wages, the prices of goods, poverty, jobs, criminality, corruption, peace, taxes, the protection of overseas Filipino workers, environmental protection, population control, territorial defense and terrorism. He also vowed to provide universal healthcare and implement the no-hospital-deposit policy. He praised Congress for passing the Ease of Doing Business law, and promised to speed up the choice of a third telco player while cutting interconnection charges.
Interestingly, there was hardly any mention of the push for Charter change and federalism, the object of frenzied fuss by Congress and the President’s lieutenants lately.
Still, the speech also fell short on other levels. In particular, on three major policy fronts that have become the defining issues of his presidency, Mr. Duterte gave no concession and, more frustratingly, was often short on specifics.
He urged Congress to pass four other tax reform packages after the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law—without once acknowledging the widespread economic pain millions of Filipinos are feeling from the record-high inflation rate that many have come to associate with the law.
On China, he reduced his administration’s fraught policy of appeasement toward Beijing to at most a brief paragraph. After lauding the improved relations between the two countries, he declared that “This does not mean we are waiving our commitment to defend our interests in the West Philippine Sea”—without any explanation thereafter as to how he would do it.
And, regarding his centerpiece war on drugs, “It will be as relentless and chilling as on the day it began,” he said—despite the thousands dead that have earned his administration international condemnation, and the documented abuses of police authorities toward ordinary citizens.
In other words, on the core and most controversial issues of Mr. Duterte’s governance, the Sona offered more of the same. What was new was something else: the President’s trademark untrammeled style of public speaking has long been criticized as unpresidential, unstatesmanlike. His last two Sonas were vivid illustrations of that freewheeling template. This time, he surprised the public with an uncharacteristically tempered performance. In its brevity, directness and restraint—qualities that have been missing in the rest of Mr. Duterte’s public addresses—the third Sona was, at the very least, a welcome departure from the usual.
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