Sona focus is growth for everyone

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Facing the nation on Monday, President Aquino is expected to unveil a road map of his final three years in office focusing on growth that benefits all, and highlight reforms in government.

The State of the Nation Address (Sona) at the opening of the 16th Congress at a crucial juncture of the Aquino administration will define for the 95 million Filipinos accomplishments under the Philippine Development Plan, and what the President intends to achieve before he steps down in 2016, according to Malacañang officials.

This year, the President has had to grapple with China’s increasing presence in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the “incursion” by heirs of the sultanate of Sulu into Sabah, the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, and the talks for a comprehensive agreement with Moro rebels.

But the most pressing challenge at home—reiterated by Catholic bishops on the eve of the President’s fourth Sona—is ensuring that the full year 2012 growth rate of 6.8 percent and first-quarter growth of 7.8 percent  become “broad-based.”

“The requirement for laying out the strategy in the remaining half of the President’s term is there,” Secretary Joel Rocamora of the National Anti-Poverty Commission said by phone. Aquino is obliged to spell out his policy direction, Rocamora said.

A key component of the policy direction is sustaining economic growth, and making it more “inclusive,” said a Cabinet secretary, who asked not to be named.

The President will push for legislation geared toward creating jobs in the face of criticisms that he is presiding over a jobless economic boom, the secretary said.

“The goal is sustaining growth and fostering an inclusive growth geared toward creating jobs,” the secretary said.

The President has said he would outline his legislative agenda in his Sona out of the meetings of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council.

Cubao Bishop Honesto Ongsioco and Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes on Saturday challenged Aquino to show how the “good economy” impacted on the lives of the poor, who comprise a third of the population, and the jobless.

Poverty incidence

Despite the growth, poverty incidence stood at 27.9 percent in 2012, “practically unchanged” from the 28.6 percent in 2009, and 28.8 percent in 2006, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board.

The growth has neither translated into opportunities for employment. In January, there were 2.89 million unemployed Filipinos and 7.934 million underemployed Filipinos.

Responding to the bishops, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said: “Listen to the Sona properly. Don’t make any prejudgments. Don’t have any analyst tell you ‘this is what the President is going to say, this is what the President is not going to say.’ Let’s just wait for the Sona to be delivered and you, yourselves, can listen and understand what’s the intention of the President.”

The bishops also demanded that Aquino show what steps he had taken to stamp out corruption.

Make no mistake, the President would come down hard on corruption, inefficiency and incompetence in the bureaucracy, and highlight this in his address, another Cabinet secretary said.

As part of reforms, Aquino would cite the recent leadership changes in the Bureau of Immigration over the escape of crime suspects, and in the National Irrigation Administration over its failure to meet targets despite using up its budget, the secretary said.

“The Sona will be hard-hitting,” the secretary said by phone. “After all, the inclusive growth can only come about if the anticorruption campaign succeeds.”

Development plan

In his past Sonas, Aquino, who won the presidency on an anticorruption campaign, had blasted irregularities under his predecessor, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

He is delivering his Sona on the heels of an Inquirer series on the conversion of P10-billion pork barrel into kickbacks over the past 10 years by a company with close ties to lawmakers, prompting calls for the scrapping of the fund.

Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said in June that Aquino would embark on job generation and rural development in the next three years as part of his economic road map.

The Philippine Development Plan is being “tweaked” toward generating more employment and developing the countryside to sustain domestic economic growth to the point that it should trickle down to the poor, Almendras said.

“The President’s guideline is to make it happen at a greater magnitude and a faster rate,” he said then of the target of inclusive growth.

In a phone interview on Saturday, Rocamora said the President had ordered the National Economic and Development Authority to review the development plan “to make growth more inclusive.”

To achieve this goal, the government is expanding the coverage of the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program—the centerpiece of the government’s antipoverty initiative—and raising infrastructure spending, Rocamora said.

“Many ideas have been floated, but as to what details will be reflected in his Sona, I don’t know,” he said.

P2.2-trillion budget

In the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014, budget officials are proposing P78.9 billion for the social welfare department, including allocation for the expansion of the CCT to help an additional 10 million children graduate from high school. The program is limited to helping children finish grade school at present.

They are also pushing a P213.5-billion allocation for the development, construction and rehabilitation of national roads and bridges under the Department of Public Works and Highways, and P48.7 billion for the implementation of air, maritime and rail transport projects under the Department of Transportation and Communications.

A prudent fiscal policy and more foreign direct investments would also play key roles in keeping the momentum of growth, analysts said.

The President has given strict instructions to his spokespersons and Cabinet officials not to mention or even leak details of his address ahead of its delivery.

“We’re inviting everyone to listen to the President’s Sona. He will say what he wants to say to the country. But as to what will be the message, let’s wait for it tomorrow,” Lacierda said over dzRB on Sunday. He said the Sona would be live-streamed on gov.ph.

Aquino is also expected to trumpet his accomplishments, including the recent signing of the annex on wealth sharing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; the implementation of the K to 12 act, or Enhanced Basic Education Act; the victory of his allies in the senatorial and congressional elections in May; and the passage of reproductive health and sin tax reform measures, among others.

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