President Aquino’s third State of the Nation Address was a speech by a reluctant, even awkward, politician come into his own. There was no mistaking both the ease and the energy which marked the President’s effective delivery; he clearly relished the moment, and the small departures from the prepared text were subtle revelations of personality. It’s a pity that he decided not to spend any of the massive political goodwill he enjoys to advance the public agenda on certain central issues.
We realize that it is not possible, or even desirable, for a speech to touch on every single aspect of governance. And we readily agree with the assessment that the President did raise many vital matters in his address, a good number of them in a convincing or compelling way. But it is simply not true, as his spokespersons have asserted, that the Sona is not the be-all and end-all of presidential speeches. Except for the inaugural address, which sets the tone for the term, and except perhaps for statements made during a grave national crisis, the Sona is the most important speech any president makes in any given year. Precisely because the Sona is put together with the help of an elaborate consultation process (something that is not done for any other speech), what is left out is often just as telling as what is left in. Lack of mention, in other words, is a form of policy-making too.
Unfortunately, and despite the length of Monday’s speech, President Aquino left out quite a bit.
He did not advance the Freedom of Information bill—a reform he eagerly embraced during his presidential campaign, an initiative that would consolidate gains in transparency and accountability. The President’s silence on the proposed law, which would place even more power directly in the hands of the very people he called his boss, was ear-splitting.
He did not advance the Reproductive Health bill—a reform whose public purpose he is himself morally convinced of, an initiative that would have improved the lives of millions of women and saved the lives of tens of thousands of at-risk infants. To be sure, he set a few hearts fluttering, notably Rep. Edcel Lagman’s, with his use of a choice phrase, “responsible parenthood,” which pro-RH bill advocates chose to hear as a call to action. But as columnist Rina Jimenez-David pointed out immediately after the Sona, President Aquino had nothing to gain politically from taking such a nuanced position. The Catholic bishops would still condemn even this half-step, as they in fact did. The President’s (half-hearted?) half-measure amounted to a form of silence; he is leaving the legislative field of battle without a clear signal to his allies that would cut through the sanctimonious clutter.
He did not advance the fight against continuing human rights violations. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, summed up President Aquino’s silence succinctly. “He missed an important opportunity during his State of the Nation Address to highlight or even mention his administration’s proclaimed policy to hold state security forces accountable for human rights abuses.” Adams also said: “While President Aquino praised the military and the police and efforts to improve the country’s defense and law enforcement capabilities, he did not utter one word during his 90-minute speech about the many victims of abuses by these forces.” Perhaps the President thought that referencing his martial law experience when he was a young boy, at the start of his speech, was acknowledgment enough? It only served to sharpen the contrast between his past suffering and his present muteness.
Not least, he did not advance the fight against rising criminality, first with his misleading use of 2009 statistics as the benchmark, and second with his silence on the rise in ordinary crimes, such as riding-in-tandem incidents.
Would the President have upset the momentum of his own rhetoric, and undermined his relentlessly optimistic message, if he had mentioned, in passing, that not a single human rights violator has been brought to justice since his term began, or that ordinary crimes, especially in sprawling urban areas, have been on the rise? We do not think so. In fact, we think it would have strengthened the Sona, tempering the steel of determined, deserved, optimism with the heat of reality.
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