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A straight-talking Sona

I welcomed President Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address last Monday, but not for drastic changes in policy directions and new government initiatives that he announced; there were hardly any. In fact, I find it reassuring, as I’m sure many others do, that he reaffirmed policies, programs and initiatives that have long been espoused by the government under previous presidents (although I’m certain that there are others of unlike mind who were disappointed for the very same reason). One only needs to review the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016, and past six-year Medium Term Philippine Development Plans under previous presidents, to see that our new President is not about to change course, especially where it’s not warranted.

His value added perhaps lies in how he appears determined to take even bolder steps in pursuing those same policy directions, such as addressing age-old constitutional barriers to foreign investment, or simplifying and lowering burdensome taxes. In a speech short on rhetoric and long on straight talk, he expressed the same impatience and exasperation that most of us Filipinos have long felt about a government that has for too long acted as if driven to make things harder for the average citizen. Passports, driver’s licenses, traffic, fishpens on Laguna Lake, and internet access may not normally be the subject of Sonas, but President Duterte understands that most Filipinos see these as where the government has let them down.

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We’ve heard it said time and again that we have no lack of good plans, programs, policies and laws, and that our problem lies in enforcement and implementation. I see at least three things wrong: 1) We don’t enforce our laws, 2) Our government departments and agencies have great difficulty with coordination and teamwork, and 3) The laws themselves have inconsistencies and flaws that undermine their proper enforcement.

From simple traffic rules to laws against graft and corruption, offenders simply manage to get away with violations, often with impunity. One gets the feeling that the system actually reinforces, rather than deters, violations of the law, to the extent that the obedient and compliant are the ones who lose out. Drivers who stay on their proper place on the road are often the last ones to get through. Too many “open secrets” of flagrant corruption, tax evasion, VIP convicts, and other anomalies are whispered about but not acted upon.

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Enforcement failures are particularly common for (but certainly not limited to) environmental laws. An example is the persistent incursion of commercial fishing vessels within the 15-kilometer zone reserved by the Fisheries Code to small artisanal municipal fishers.  Another is the persistence of illegal fishpens in both inland and coastal fisheries. As President Duterte himself recognizes, the problem in many cases is that powerful political figures are either behind or directly responsible for the incursions.  The culture of corruption has seemingly been long entrenched in the government, and many see in him the hope that his administration can finally make this the exception rather than the norm.

Meanwhile, tackling development challenges effectively usually requires interagency, multisectoral and multidisciplinary approaches and solutions. The Philippines has actually been at the forefront of establishing coordinative and consultative mechanisms to deal with sustainable development and other governance concerns. But coordination difficulties persist, particularly because governments have always been organized along distinct sectoral lines. Even so, overlapping and duplicating functions across government departments and offices are common.

A prime illustration of this lack of coordination is the confused state of our land administration system. More than 10 years ago, the European Commission in the Philippines observed that “there is a complex situation of overlapping of agencies and laws [in land administration]. There are also multiple standards for land valuation, which offer ample opportunities for corruption.”  The problems still persist, and our land administration and management system has long been in dire need of an overhaul that would require consolidation of functions currently lying within several land registration and administration agencies, which in turn fall within at least two Cabinet-level departments (Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Department of Justice).

Some of the difficulties of past years stem from inconsistencies and ambiguities in the laws themselves. Among the most controversial laws pertaining to the environment has been the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (Republic Act No. 7942), whose constitutionality had been questioned at, and later affirmed (though not unanimously) by, the Supreme Court. But the law has been at odds with the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Ipra or RA 8371), which recognizes and promotes the rights of indigenous peoples to ancestral domains and lands. Meanwhile, investors and certain government offices invoke the Mining Act in allowing mining exploration and development activities in areas that would otherwise be barred from such by the Ipra.

The new President has put together a Cabinet that appears poised to act with the same seeming decisiveness and impatience that he exudes. He also has a “supermajority” in Congress that promises to get things done for him. After his straight-talking if unconventional Sona, the much-heralded change we’d all like to see this time around is a President who will finally get things done right, done better, and done faster.

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TAGS: Rodrigo Duterte, Sona, State of the Nation Address
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