Aquino Sona: Political critics find fault, allies find only meritBy Michael Lim Ubac
The longest ever State of the Nation Address (Sona) of President Benigno Aquino failed to convince his most ardent critics, but his close political allies were all praises for his performance.
Right after the President finished his speech, which lasted one hour and 28 minutes, Bayan Muna Representative Teodoro Casiño told reporters that Mr. Aquino was entitled to his own opinion.
“The President’s speech is a smorgasbord of good news— that’s maybe the reason why the [speech] was long, because he included everything that could be sources of good news,” Casiño said, adding that Mr. Aquino selected favorable statistics and “numbers that are positive” to his presidency.
“But from our point of view, there are things that need to be said,” Casiño said. “Whether he doesn’t want to hear it, he needs to know, and that’s what we are doing. That’s part of our work here in Congress. That’s our duty.”
Casiño, who is running for senator next year, said portions of Mr. Aquino’s report to the nation could not be validated “on the ground and actual experience of the everyday Filipino.”
He cited the endless complaints from applicants for PhilHealth benefits across the country.
“It’s really a feel-good speech— best foot forward—that has to be balanced by what is the reality on the ground,” Casiño said.
Casiño also pointed to the silence of the President on the pending freedom of information bill; the skyrocketing prices of basic commodities and oil; private ownership of basic utilities; rampant human rights violations; housing for the poor; and continued demolition of urban poor shanties.
“He evaded his shortcomings, but highlighted the good news,” Casiño said. “I think he has failed to really produce some impact on ordinary Filipino people. He has one, two, or three good stories, but they don’t reflect the general reality on the ground.”
But for Vice President Jejomar Binay, the President did quite well.
“The President spoke of very nice things,” Binay said in a statement written in Filipino.
“He’s right, nothing is impossible,” Binay said.
“Now we see that the President’s reforms are bearing fruit,” he said, pledging support for Mr. Aquino’s programs designed to ease poverty.
Binay appealed to the nation to support the Aquino administration.
The Estradas’ top scores
Former President Joseph Estrada and his son, Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, gave President Aquino high marks.
The older Estrada said he was giving the President “80 percent” while the senator said the speech deserved “9.9 on a scale of one to 10.”
The former President said Mr. Aquino needed to weed out graft and corruption left from the nine years of the Arroyo administration.
“With all the problems left behind, the President’s administration is really facing difficulties,” Estrada said in Filipino.
Senator Estrada said he “liked everything” in Mr. Aquino’s speech.
Senator Edgardo Angara said the President delivered “an impressive account” of his accomplishments,” while Senator Gregorio Honasan said he gave Mr. Aquino a favorable grade.
Senator Loren Legarda said she would support the President’s policies. “I’m very happy about the universal health care for the 15 million indigent families,” she said.
Not marching order
A small group of lawmakers ardently pushing for the reproductive health (RH) bill gave President Aquino a standing ovation when he mentioned the importance of “responsible parenthood” in his speech.
But Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said he did not see the President’s pronouncement as a marching order for both chambers of Congress to pass the bill once and for all.
“Do not put words into his mouth,” he told reporters after the Sona, noting that the President made no mention of a “bill,” much less “reproductive health.”
“If he wanted to, he would have said ‘bill’ or ‘responsible parenting bill.’ He did not say a thing. He just said ‘responsible parenting.’”
A spade’s a spade
But Senator Pia Cayetano, a sponsor of the RH measure in the Senate, welcomed the President’s statement, saying “it’s in his consciousness”—the need to deal with problems such as maternal health.
“I realized that he is trying to use a term that will be acceptable to some groups,” she said. “But, of course, being the sponsor, I call a spade a spade. That’s OK with me if he likes to do it this way … . RH is RH whatever you want to call it.”
Sotto, author of a counterproposal ensuring the life of the unborn child, said that there should be no quarrel when it comes to promoting “responsible parenthood.”
“I don’t see a problem at all because those of us who are against the bill are in favor of responsible parenting,” he said.
But Sotto sounded the alarm on a provision in the RH bill that would classify certain forms of contraceptives as “essential medicines.”
“The life inside the mother’s womb will not be protected [if that is passed],” he said in Filipino.
In the House of Representatives, Representative Edcel Lagman, principal sponsor of the RH bill, was the happiest lawmaker in Congress Monday.
Lagman stood up and applauded Mr. Aquino when the President suggested a look at responsible parenthood to solve ever-increasing student populations in public schools.
“We are truly happy and energized by the President’s renewed and categorical endorsement of the passage of the reproductive health bill, which is actually the same as the responsible parenthood bill,” Lagman said.
The President’s mention of the proposal was brief, but Lagman said what mattered was the import and the impact of the message.
Catholic Church leaders were disappointed at Mr. Aquino for suggesting the passage of the RH bill.
“We don’t see any connection between the education problem and the bill promoting and funding contraceptive usage,” said Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
“We will plan and keep you abreast,” Castro said. “In the meantime, we shall pray and discern. The battle resumes.”
Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz said Mr. Aquino “did not know what he was talking about” when he spoke about responsible parenthood.
“In church parlance, responsible parenthood means the use of natural family planning, which is contrary to contraception,” Cruz said.
“I hope he will fulfill his promises,” Cruz said. “If he does all the things that he said he would do, we might as well be in heaven.”
Cruz noticed Mr. Aquino’s “deafening silence” on constitutional amendments despite the call of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. for changes to the Constitution.
“This is payback time. Congress did what the President wanted,” Cruz said, referring to the ouster by impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona. “Now they want their Charter change.”
But Mr. Aquino’s failure to mention amendments in his speech is not deterring supporters of the move.
Camarines Sur Representative Luis Villafuerte said the issue may not have cropped up in the speech, but he said the issue should still go up for discussion.
Anyway, Mr. Aquino did not expressly say whether he was for or against amending the Constitution, Villafuerte said.
“I think that issue should be open… He did not indicate lack of support; neither did he indicate positive support,” he said.
An Waray Representative Florencio Noel said that though amending the Constitution was not mentioned, discussions on amending the Constitution’s economic provisions could continue.
“Congress might just want to discuss, as mentioned, the economic provisions that should have been tackled a long time ago,” Noel said.
San Juan Representative JV Ejercito said even without the President’s endorsement, he believed there’s a need for amendments, especially concerning the economic provisions. With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada, Christian V. Esguerra, Philip C. Tubeza and Leila B. Salaverria