The State of Reform in the Philippines
Akbayan on Aquino’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA)
From the start, when we supported the leadership of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III (PNoy) and entered into a coalition with his administration, we had no illusion that he would radically overhaul the country’s political system. He won the Filipino people’s trust in 2010 due to his firm commitment to good governance and political reforms. We read this as an opportunity for broader, far-reaching reforms; this was the opportunity we needed to transition from the nightmarish experience with the Arroyo regime to a political atmosphere conducive for the consolidation and growth of the forces of reform.
We understood the limits of a reform campaign initiated by a government well within the frame of elite democracy regardless of its openness to reforms. We expected that reform initiatives will be constrained by the limits of what remains to be a largely traditional political system. This was reaffirmed by President Aquino’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA). Beyond the achievements presented by the President Aquino, his speech was a presentation of the “state of reforms” under his period in office.
The momentum of reform
And the momentum of the overall reform process hangs in the balance. Partly because the enemies of reform as represented by the detained pork barrel plunderers have to some extent succeeded in muddling the narrative of the people's anti-corruption campaign; and partly, since we are now straining against the boundaries of a reform campaign still confined by the limits of a political system, which is itself a source of poverty and corruption.
Some quarters have said that the reform thrust of the Aquino administration is already spent. We think this is an incomplete assessment as it does not capture the entire Aquino-reform-people dynamic. It is only but proper to assess the direction, momentum and overall dynamic of the reform process as this might reveal new truths about the country’s current political situation and guide us on how we position ourselves in this very complex state of affairs. This can be better understood by examining the current balance of political power, the dynamics between the government, public, social movements and social opinion throughout the reform process.
In truth, the direction and momentum of reform has shifted from the Aquino administration to the people. In the first three years of the Aquino administration, the government shaped and led the direction and momentum of reform by placing its anti-corruption campaign at the center of its platform. Prior to this administration, major anti-corruption initiatives tended to come from the political opposition. The Aquino government is the first to make anti-corruption a centerpiece campaign, which is an historic development. However, of late, the exercise of leadership shifted to the public, with the government playing a secondary role as a recipient of the people’s clamor and an implementer of their agenda.
Reform process beyond PNoy
Perhaps what we are witnessing is a reform campaign started by the Aquino administration that has now gathered momentum beyond its control and has begun to go deeply to the people and their clamor for lasting institutional changes. In such a situation, the reform process in the hands of the people must push the boundaries and pursue strategic changes beyond the expectations provided by the political system. President Aquino himself admitted, “marami po ang magpapatuloy ng ating tinahak na. Baka iyon lang po talaga ang papel ko–umpisahan ito.” It is in this context that Akbayan responds to President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address.
We welcome the President’s commitment to several socio-political issues that Akbayan has long advocated.
Legislative solution to the DAP impasse
That President Aquino encouraged a legislative solution to the issue of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is a welcome development in the current impasse between the Executive and the Supreme Court. We have consistently argued that it should not be left to the discretion of the High Court, nor the Office of the President, to determine the extent of the Executive’s power over the budget. Congress holds the power of the purse, and it is in the interest of lasting democratic reforms for Congress to lay down clearer and stronger rules defining Executive power over the budget, particularly in the definition of savings and impoundment of the budget how the executive must utilize this. In fact, Akbayan has long been ready with our package of Budget Reform Bills, and we are looking forward to the passage of these bills given the President’s support.
Just conclusion for CARPER
We also welcome the President’s resolve to complete the distribution of all remaining landholdings to the farmers that have long toiled on these lands. Land reform remains a crucial component for the eradication of rural poverty and the transformation of the vast tracts of land in the country-side from being a glaring reminder of injustice, to the engine for development of the Philippine agricultural sector. Akbayan will continue to press the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to speed up its efforts to thoroughly implement land reform at the same time that we will ensure the passage of legislation that will extend the distribution of notices of coverage for all landholdings beyond the directory set in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extension and Reforms (CARPER). We will continue to take DAR Secretary Gil Delos Reyes to task for his sluggish implementation of AR and his lack of political will to ensure the completion of land distribution. We will ensure that land reform, the struggle for justice and dignity of ordinary Filipino farmers, will continue to be at the centerpiece of the government’s development program even beyond 2016.
Bangsamoro Basic Law
Likewise, we laud his continuing commitment to the Bangsamoro people and their collective aspiration for peace and self-determination. President Aquino’s commitment to urge Congress to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law is a step towards the positive transformation of Philippine society and a modern reinvention of our concept of national community. We support the Moro people’s full political inclusion through a genuine exercise of autonomy and ample representation in our democratic institutions, a complete acknowledgement of their claims to their ancestral lands, and full respect for their cultural and religious freedoms must be equally realized.
However, even as we are happy with the President’s commitment to ensure the rights and dignity of ordinary Filipinos, as well as lasting democratic reforms through the budget process, we also maintain certain reservations to important democratic and social reforms that the President left out.
Strikes and anti-labor policies
We express our disappointment with the President’s glorification of the absence of strikes since this is a product of anti-labor policies over the last four decades that have made labor very weak. While we believe that labor unions must never rely on government policies to ensure their strength, we believe that government must at the minimum respect the rights of workers to organize and strike. It is in this manner that the government contributes towards reinstating the balance in relations between workers and management, and ensuring the dignity of the working people.
Yolanda rehabilitation and relocation of informal settler families
We are dismayed by President Aquino’s glorification of the administration’s response to the disaster–stricken areas hit by typhoon Yolanda. The President’s presentation is a far cry from the on-ground situation, the government’s immediate response as well as the continuing rehabilitation program has left much to be desired. The rehabilitation must be fast-tracked, and this process must prioritise human rights and dignity of all members of the devastated communities over the corporate and business interests.
In the same manner, we are disappointed with President Aquino’s promotion of off-site relocation of displaced informal settler families. Poor families and their rights to decent housing that is within the vicinity of their workplace must always be the priority over rampant urbanization.
We are likewise saddened that President Aquino left out the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill that is crucial in securing the reforms that this administration has initiated. Transparency and accountability are best institutionalized with FOI; the people’s access to pertinent information regarding government’s transactions will empower the citizenry and deepen democracy.
New economic paradigm, break from the neoliberal model
Finally, we reiterate our call to President Aquino to commit in ensuring a new paradigm for sustained development. This must be marked by the development of the agricultural sector in favor of increasing the productivity of small farmers and farmworkers, and in the government’s effort to create jobs and explore industrialization, we must make a clear shift to an ecologically-congenial production process that will ensure the rights of communities to the commons such as water resources, fishing grounds and land, and reduce the country’s reliance on coal-fired power plants and other environmentally destructive production technologies.
Furthermore, we must ensure that workers and informal settler communities who continue to be victims of indiscriminate urban development are provided decent housing facilities on-site, in-city. It is also important for the government to make a commitment to protect the rights and welfare of Filipino workers across the world who have long acted as the lifeline of our economy.
In short, this administration must make the break from the failed neoliberal policies that have pushed our economy to sluggish growth and our people to deeper destitution, the government must take the brave step towards pro-people development by prioritizing local production, social welfare, and environmental sustainability.
“Last two minutes”
President Aquino is in the last two minutes of his game. Being the team captain, President Aquino must step up his game; rally the people to a 'full court press' to defend and further their gains, make best use of the remaining time, and deliver victory for the people. As long as President Aquino is committed to the reform process, Akbayan Party, which is his coalition partner for the last four years, will continue to support him and work with this administration to secure the important gains that the people have won in the campaign for reforms.
Akbayan lauds PNoy's support for FOI and other reform bills, urges president to also certify budget reform bills urgent
Akbayan Party today welcomed President Benigno Aquino III's inclusion of Akbayan reform bills among its list of priority legislation. The group noted that these bills were 'aces' up his administration's sleeve in pushing the campaign for reform further.
"While many dismissed the President as having laid all his cards on the table, we've consistently urged him to up the ante by pushing for other bold reform measures. Fortunately, he responded by throwing his support for these measures," according to Akbayan Representative Walden Bello.
The Akbayan reform bills in the list that President Aquino cited as his administration's priority measures are: the Freedom of Information, National Land Use, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), Anti-Trust, and Land Acquisition and Distribution bills.
Achieving Freedom of Information
The party-list group lauded the President’s announcement regarding the Freedom of Information bill, especially after the long and arduous journey that the bill has gone through.
Akbayan Representative Barry Gutierrez emphasized FOI’s crucial role in democratizing government processes to curb the possible misuse of power by unscrupulous public officials and strengthen the mechanisms for accountability.
"The Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation to ensure the strengthening of transparency and accountability mechanisms within the government processes. Akbayan will certainly see to it that it is passed,” Gutierrez said.
For Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, that FOI is certified as urgent will certainly speed up the bill's passage.
"The passage of Freedom of Information is long over-due. Advocates have worked tirelessly for this, and the certification provides both the FOI authors and champions as well as the advocates the necessary boost to all our efforts to secure Freedom of Information. Now we draw the battle lines and determine who within Congress are serious with their commitment to transparency and accountability, and who are not,” Bello said.
Boost to agrarian Reform
Akbayan noted the urgency of passing the Land Acquisition and Distribution (LAD) bill which would pave the way for the continuity of land reform and ensure the development of the agricultural sector.
“Farmers have been very disappointed with the sluggish rate at which the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) implemented the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extension and Reforms Law (CARPER), and already DAR’s weakness has been to the advantage of the elite. The LAD bill provides farmers and land reform advocates insurance to land reform in two levels. First, it reinforces DAR’s mandate to implement agrarian reform and provides a legal framework that will, to a certain extent, eliminate landowners’ resistance to the program. More importantly, by extending the CARPER directory for land acquisition and distribution, it ensures that all farmers will finally own the land that they till,” Bello said.
“Secretary Gil delos Reyes has been a sorry excuse for the massive agrarian reform backlog. This certification serves as the marching orders to him to shape up. At this point, there is no excuse for Secretary delos Reyes not to complete land reform. We will keep the fire to his feet, and he better be ready to assume political leadership in the implementation of land reform,” Bello added.
Directing pro-people reforms in the final stretch
Gutierrez also pointed out that President Aquino’s decision to certify as urgent several Akbayan flagship legislation as the administration nears its completion makes clear the direction of government’s reform efforts: ensuring the rights and welfare of ordinary Filipinos across the nation.
“The IDP bill will secure the protection of the personal liberties and insure the future of the victims of man-made and natural disasters. The Anti-Trust bill eliminates illegal business practices and sets in place a fair business environment not only to promote business competitiveness in the country, but more importantly, to protect the rights of ordinary Filipino consumers,” Gutierrez said.
“With the certification of these bills, the welfare of ordinary Filipinos take center-stage in the administration’s reform initiative. This leaves no doubt that President Aquino is decisive to pursue lasting reforms for the people. In step with the President’s initiative, Congress must swiftly and immediately pass these reform bills,” Gutierrez said.
Secure Democratic Reforms with Budget Reform
For Akbayan, in the final stretch of the Aquino administration, there remains one crucial set of reforms that the government must make the commitment to, budget reforms.
“President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address encouraged a legislative solution to the issue of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). This is a welcome development in the current impasse between the Executive and the Supreme Court. More importantly, it is a positive step towards deeper democratization,” Gutierrez said.
“We encourage President Aquino to take yet another step forward, and certification of Akbayan’s package of budget reform bills as urgent. Congress holds the power of the purse, and it is in the interest of lasting democratic reforms for Congress to lay down clearer and stronger rules defining Executive power over the budget, particularly in the definition of savings and impoundment of the budget how the executive must utilize this,” Gutierrez concluded.
Akbayan’s budget reform bills are HB 2256, the Savings and Augmentation Act of 2013, HB 2257, the Impoundment Control and Regulation Act of 2013, and HB 3128, the Budget Reform Act. This packet of budget reforms will strictly define the powers of the president over the budget, which, as recent developments in the DAP issue demonstrate, is important in ensuring democracy over the budget process as well.