No Special Treatment

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    No special treatment (Common definition): To be given no deference.

    No special treatment (Filipino definition): To be accorded respect befitting a person of influence.

                                                    -o-

    Janet Napoles turned herself in and so would we if so welcomed.

    She was received at the Palace, accompanied by our leader to police headquarters, detained in airconditioned premises, then transferred to the abode of a former President with ample grounds, fresh air, a view and complimentary wi-fi.

    This person, incidentally, has been charged with kidnapping, a crime heinous enough to be non-bailable. She is apparently also to be accused of plunder which is the commission of major financial fraud –in her case P10 billion and counting. The moral of the story? If you are to commit a crime go big time. You always get upgraded.

    The lady surrendered because she claims to be “in fear of her life”. She also professes to be clueless about all the fuss (What, po, is pork barrel?) so one wonders why the paranoia. The authorities must believe her account, hence the red carpet and fancy digs.

    What next?

    For Napoles, it is now all about securing bail. If she succeeds in convincing a judge that kidnapping is, in the scheme of things, merely trifling, she is away. She can sit out the next half decade ensconced in her wealth while awaiting the glacial pace of justice. If the Ampatuans are still around after being accused of murdering in cold blood over 50 people in front of dozens of witnesses, the “serious illegal detention” of a former employee should be a piece of cake with any judge worth his weight in gold.

    To forestall this possibility of bail, the authorities are preparing a charge of plunder, another non-bailable offense, in connection with the P10 billion pork scam. The only hitch is, as a private person, she can only be so accused as part of a broader charge against a public official(s) i.e. the Government must find some public person(s) who can be charged along with her. And here is where it gets complicated. DOJ Sec. De Lima announced an indictment is being prepared against a number of lawmakers. Media reports at least 3 Senators and 23 Representatives are implicated. Since plunder involves ill-gotten wealth of over P50 million, this should eliminate the Congressmen with the smaller offenses, leaving only the Senators with the big PDAF budgets.

    In the Corona impeachment, the prosecutors winged their case but still got a conviction only because the CJ overplayed his hand. This time is different. The Senators –and you know who they are- are politically heavier and legally savvier. The prosecutors better have the goods on them – certainly more than what they had on Corona- if they want the charges to stick and not have pie on their face. They should not play to the crowd, not promise more than they can deliver i.e. not play it cute. They hopefully are aware of this, hence the delay in the filing of charges. The key is Napoles and what she has to say.

    There are two ways to handle the lady. The first is to treat her as a common criminal –shared toilets with tough-looking females, etc.- to break her down. She is, by her own admission, a fearful person so giving her “no special treatment” could do the trick.

    The other is to handle her with tender loving care in the hope of gaining her co-operation. This is apparently the Government’s choice which explains her doting treatment even at the risk of public ire.

    The authorities have a limited window to move on the lady. She and her political friends are feverishly working on securing bail. If successful, the Government will have no leverage on her. It can still file a plunder charge but it is a Catch 22: It needs her testimony to make the charges stick against her supposed senatorial accomplices but it can only get this if she is under custody.

    The Government needs to rally public opinion. So far it has done a dismal job at this. Despite the national outrage, it has refused to truly abolish the PDAF and when it has relented it has done so kicking and screaming. Filipinos are upset with the coddling of the lady. They are wondering whether the Palace has its own skeletons some as near as in the Office of the President.

    One thing is certain: The public is frothing at the mouth. If from bungling or whatever the Government fails to deliver a conviction of her and some major political figures (or even if the lady gets out on bail) the principal casualty will be the President and everything he has worked so hard to build. And that would be the irony and the tragedy: That not only were we ripped off by a bunch of hoodlums, but the leader we so want to succeed will have been diminished in our estimation while they get to sail into the sunset in their ill-gotten yachts.

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The New, Improved PDAF

                        “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

                                                -0-

Citing time -and not necessarily public outrage- the President announced he was abolishing the PDAF, the boon to the nation that DBM Sec. Abad earlier declared could only be taken down by Congress. The program would be replaced by PDAF 2, a new and improved version that contains novel safety and styling features approved by the FDA  and Homeland Security.

To launch the new product, the Presidential Communications Group Et Al. kicked off a nationwide contest for best tag line (Submissions should be made to Go.Go.Go.PDAF@Malacanang.org.). Entries so far received are:

-       PDAF 2: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

-       PDAF 2: Senators and Congressmen may re-apply. No prior experience needed.

-       PDAF 2: Killing you softly.

-       PDAF 2: All the gain without the pain.

-       PDAF 2: Satisfaction guaranteed or money back, bathtub included. Service fees may apply.

-       PDAF 2: All the pork you can eat, Ombudsman free.

-       PDAF 2: How to win Congressmen and influence people.

-       PDAF 2: All the things you wanted to ask a Senator but never dared.

-       PDAF 2: Your business is important to us. Please stay on the line and a Senator will soon be with you.

The first prize is dinner with Lady J, wine included, at the Ritz Carlton in LA. Second prize, subject to availability, is a modest meal with one Mom Naporkless, wine prohibited, at an airconditioned location in Makati.

PDAF 2 retains the basic feature of its predecessor, namely, Congressmen still get to pitch their personal charities for public funding. However, these will now be submitted in the Budget as “line items” as opposed to the previous lump sum allocation (P200 million per Senator and P70 million per Representative) so popular with our politicians. Assuming each of the 289 Representatives and 24 Senators endorses say, 10 projects, Congress will vet 3,130 PDAF proposals. At five projects per business day, the list and the 2014 Budget should be done by 2017 which really is not a bad thing.

PDAF 2 will now be implemented by Government agencies and private contractors rather than by NGOs i.e. the cookie jar will be transferred from non-accountable non-profits to civil servants and non-accountable for-profits. Incidentally, these are the same civil servants who made possible the fertilizer, Malampaya Fund and alleged Napoles billion peso scams. Members of Congress can continue to collect their share of the loot with a little bit of imagination and coddling of suppliers.

PDAF 2 will no longer be available for “soft projects” like thrash deodorizers and school meals for kids. It will be restricted to “hard projects” like roads and schools.

Legislators can now only endorse projects in their districts. While this makes sense for Congressmen, it does not for Senators whose mandate is national. On the contrary, the latter should be prohibited from recommending funding for their bailiwicks. As is the prevalent practice, a Senator should not be able to allocate his PDAF to his province to support his relatives running for local office. This is how family dynasties are perpetuated.

PDAF 2, it is said, is now fully transparent since pork proposals will be on public display. In practice, however, neither the public nor our hard working politicians are likely to scrutinize the thousands of line-item proposals. So we will continue to be mugged but this time, thank goodness, with advance notice and in broad daylight.

 It is unclear whether the President is philosophically enamored with pork as a developmental tool or his advisers are financially and politically endeared with this means of sustenance. PNoy recently fired a Palace consultant hired by Exec. Secretary Paquito Ochoa with reported ties to Napoles (coincidentally the same Ochoa who Mrs. Napoles claims, without prompting, had nothing to do with anything) suggesting that the tentacles of PDAF have penetrated the inner circles of Malacanang.

If the President wants to recover from what so far has been a train wreck, he should shut down PDAF, in whatever form. Congressmen (or anybody else) can “suggest” projects for Executive funding but understand it is not an entitlement.

There is some good news. Earlier this week Mrs. N surrendered to the President (It was nice of him to motor to the PNP HQ to receive her). She fears for her life, she claims, while professing she has nothing to say. So why the glum? Perhaps it was to collect the P10 million bounty. Otherwise, the lady seems ready to do what she does best, make a deal. The first hint is the air-conditioned cell and the sofa. Senators and Representatives, I would start lawyering up, times ten.

The other good news: In what can only be a miracle, the PDAF has shrunk from P27 billion when DBM Sec. Abad proudly unveiled its budget prior to the Napoles’ revelations last month to now P25.2 billion, a drop of P1.8 billion.

People, if we hang in there long enough, maybe this thing could disappear altogether.

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It’s Complicated

Things could get messy.

DOJ Sec. de Lima announced cases will shortly be filed against a number of solons associated with the P10 billion pork scam (This confirms what a Senate insider told me that three Senators are soon to be charged). The accused, she noted, could come from both sides of the political divide. The Inquirer reported Enrile, Jinggoy, Bong Revilla and Ed Angara were the top users of their PDAF in 2007-2009. The first three have reportedly been associated with the alleged Napoles and ZNAC/PFI hoaxes.

This brings up some constitutional questions. One is the immunity of the Legislative branch against prosecution. Under Art. VI, Sec. 11 of the Constitution: “A Senator or Member of the House of Representatives shall in all offenses punishable by not more than six years of imprisonment, be privileged from arrest while the Congress is in session”. To bypass the time limitation, the Ombudsman could file charges of plunder which carries a life term. Under Sec. 2 of R.A. 7080, plunder is ill-gotten wealth of over P50 million.

Another is the independence provision of the Constitution. Under Sec.16 (3) Art.VI  only the Senate or the House may sanction its members: “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings … and with the concurrence of two thirds of its members suspend or expel a Member”. Can the Ombudsman prosecute a lawmaker?

Three is the constitutionality of the PDAF itself: Does PDAF grant legislators semi-executive powers in the administration of funds? By its co-dependency between the Executive and the Legislative, does it violate the principle of checks and balances? Declaring the PDAF unconstitutional would render its issues moot and academic.

Public opinion is incensed at the pork scam. What is needed to appease its clamor for blood?

One, the PDAF should be suspended if not abolished to dial down the emotions. After some foot dragging, the President finally decided to do just this. He was wasting valuable political capital on an unpopular matter which would have  cost him –and worse, us- in 2016. Even his Senatorial supporters were increasingly coming out against the program. Thank you, sir.

 Two, the Administration must find the lady and stick her with a non-bailable offense. She is desperately seeking bail. If she succeeds she will come in from the cold knowing she can buy time until 2016 when things will ease up. To forestall this, the Government announced it will add plunder to the current charge of “serious illegal detention”, both theoretically non-bailable offenses. As a private citizen, she can only be so charged if in association with a public official(s). This suggests plunder is being readied against some solons.

Three, some political honchos must be nailed. Here is where it gets complicated. The accused legislators are unlikely to stand down. Although a stretch, they could retaliate by bringing impeachment proceedings against the Ombudsman for, say, political bias and “violation of the public trust”. The President controls both Houses so this eventuality is remote unless so many lawmakers are involved in the scams –and we do not discount this- they could trigger or threaten to trigger this nuclear option.

They could also file charges against Administration officials for participating in the conspiracy. Although the current investigation covers the period 2007-2009, pork scams, we can be assured, did not end with the last Administration. A hoax of this magnitude requires the participation of officials of the DBM and the line agencies (DPWH, DWSD, etc.). If the lawmakers are going down, they will take members of the President’s official family with them.

In this all out brawl, the Government could come to a standstill. Congress could hold hostage the 2014 Budget as well as other priority bills of the President. The Judiciary will play a pivotal role in this Wild West scenario.

The saga has still to unfold. There are judicial, administrative and relationship issues. Historically the prospect of legislators being taken down is unprecedented. The Executive and the Judiciary have had their turn. This time, however, it will be different because of the number of accused  -and not only in the Legislature- and the dynamics. The scandal is so encompassing nobody really knows the extent of the  fall-out. Already, a prominent LP Representative has been implicated. The collateral damage should, if one was the President, be cause for concern. This one could go anywhere.

Yet it could also be a tipping point. As a nation we want and need closure. However, we must be prepared for its price, possibly a constitutional crisis and its impact on government and the economy. The process will occupy the President, it will pre-occupy his people. It will add to an already burdened judicial agenda. Congress, or whatever is left of it, will grind to a halt. It will be all Filipinos will be thinking about

As I said, it could get messy.

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PDAF: A Hoax Too Big To Fail

The country is apoplectic over the pork scam. Despite the prayers of politicians, this one is not going away. Real estate magnate Janet Napoles fuelled the buzz with her surreal (and unintelligible) Inquirer interview. What was she thinking, that she could charm a bunch of grizzled journalists with her “po, tita and kuya” ? Ate, these are not Senators and Congressmen you are talking to.

 Malacanang, at first, responded to the scandal with ambivalence. Let us wait for the outcome of the NBI investigation, it said. In the same breath, however, the President expressed support for the PDAF and-I am not kidding- even raised its budget from P24 billion last year to P27 billion this year. Maybe it is to account for inflation.

Needless to say, this did go down well with the natives. It raised speculation that perhaps PNoy has his own skeletons in the closet, like millions in donation to the Liberal Party. The more sensitive approach would have been to suspend the PDAF at least until the NBI findings. The Administration regained some of its footing with the arrest order on the lady (more on this later).

By contrast, our (out)lawmakers continue to be un-repenting. They frothed to lynch a Chief Justice but are clearly not as keen when it comes to their own. Here, I imagine, is the notice that went out to the faithful:

“Memo to: Senate and House Members

From: Your Leaders

Subject: Lockdown

Listen up, people. Our beloved P27 billion Mother Lode is in peril. We are going into lockdown. Please observe the following instructions:

1. Do not talk to media without prior clearance or your lawyer. Mum is the word.

2. Shred any incriminating evidence particularly party pictures with the lady.

3. Empty your bank accounts, your hard drives, your SIMs and your memories.

In the meantime we are taking the offensive. There will be favorable testimonials from our friend’s Indonesian coal partners and kindergarten teachers. She herself has volunteered to do interviews, bag in hand and preferably one-on-one, with whoever will listen. Justin Bieber will vouch for the daughter. PR professionals will be developing other news to divert public attention. The recent spate of bombings has been helpful.

These are trying times but we shall overcome. Good luck to all and God bless.

 This memo will self-destruct in 20 seconds.”

The PDAF is a scam waiting to happen, a scheme so encompassing it is too big to fail. Credit therefore to Senators Frank, Miriam, Chiz and Rep. Leni for the courage to urge for its abolishment and to Senators Ping and Joker for not touching the stuff. You may have your differences with some of them but not on this.

Filipinos are clamoring for blood and they expect Malacanang to provide the carcass. They want the President to be outraged and to bang the table. They are therefore surprised –no, disappointed- that PNoy has remained relatively silent. This is the man’s conundrum. On one hand, he seemingly underestimated the political fall-out. For the first time his persona is being questioned, threatening his legacy. His detractors are busy whispering “I-told-you-so” to a now more receptive audience.

His problem is he is unsure how many of his supporters and staff have tasted of the forbidden fruit. He knows they are not all the choirboys and girls of his Daan Matuwid but is uncertain of the depth of the rot.

The President needs to stay ahead of the curve and keep in control of events. He has a number of options. One, trigger a Congressional investigation over the kicking and screaming of legislators. He runs the risk, however, of the process taking a life of its own, a run-away train that could take down friend and foe alike. The show would also lack conviction, figuratively and literally.

Two, put the squeeze on Napoles, her family and her assets and see what gives. The arrest order for “illegal detention”, a non-bailable offense, and freezing of her accounts are a good start. The only problem now is finding her.

Three, do not find her. Out of sight, out of mind. People could eventually forget.

Four, hope that parties of interest –and there are many- take matters into their hands. This would be neat for everybody except, I am afraid, for the lady.

Five, offer the woman a chance of survival and a plea bargain in exchange for her turning state witness and returning the monies. This way Malacanang controls the proceedings: It could minimize damage to friends and maximize it to foes. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to assuage the nation and clear the political landscape. How cool is that.

Machiavelli once said: “To defeat the forces of savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take on as it were, the sins of the situation upon itself. Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes.”

Machiavelli, I suspect, would suggest option 5.

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On Coal Trading And Others

It’s amazing what coal trading can do for you.

Or so is the claim of the lady with the aristocratically hyphenated family name now on the no-fly zone of Senators and Representatives. The business has allowed her to live her dream and her daughter the crass displays of ostentation that have offended public sensibilities. Let’s see if the NBI and the BIR are buying it. As for the legislators, they are busy ducking for cover, pointing fingers and emptying their bank accounts. The silence from this normally loquacious bunch is deafening.

Right now it is a case of she said, they said. There are a couple of ways for the Government to go about this.

The first is to follow the money, from the time the funds left the Treasury, to the dummy NGO/service providers, to the handlers, to the politicians. Much of the trail will end up in non-traceable cash withdrawals and somebody’s bathtub but still, the journey of P10 billion over ten years must leave a stench. Following the money was what led to the bank accounts and ouster of Erap and ex-CJ Corona. Calling AMLA, again.

One reference point may be the Air Materiel Wings Savings and Loan Assc.,  a bank  run by retired Air Force buddies of the family where the lady reportedly parked P510 million over the years. (Who deposits that kind of money in an institution with that name? It reportedly pays 13% interest, tax-free, your only worry being (a) how does it do it and (b) what happens when its biggest client skips town. But we digress.)

Another way is to get the principal suspect to turn state witness in a plea bargain and go after the political honchos she allegedly serviced. This brings up the elemental question of how far to take matters: Is the Administration satisfied to nail Mrs. Billion Bucks or is the plan to go after the political gods on whose pork barrel the gravy train traveled? Will the investigation be just another one of many or will it seek to get some really, really big fish? It was the same question before the President when he debated whether to go for the Chief Justice (He decided to pull the trigger). The answer has long-term consequences for our nation.

Taking down the Senators and Representatives associated with the scam would be historic from a governance viewpoint. On the political Richter scale it would be at par with the ouster of Erap and of Corona (There would be a nice symmetry to it, one send-off for every equal branch of Government). Politically and legally, however, it would be more tortuous: Unlike Erap and Corona’s case, it would mean Congressmen turning on a bunch of their own something they have no DNA for.

 Under Sec.16 (3) Art. VI of the Constitution only the Senate or the House -not the Ombudsman- may sanction its members: “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings … and with the concurrence of two thirds of its members suspend or expel a Member”.

In the pork scam, any disciplinary action would be based on Sec.14 Art. VI of the Constitution: “No Senator or Member of the House of Representatives (shall) directly or indirectly be financially interested in any contract with…any instrumentality (of Government). He shall not intervene in any manner before any office of the Government for his pecuniary benefit or where he may be called upon to act on account of his office.”

In the Senate 16 out of 24 members, in the House 193 of its 289 members would be needed to convict. Considering that at least 6 Senators have been linked to the reported hoaxes, getting to the magic number would be near impossible even though the President has on paper that many in the Ruling Coalition.

The reality of a collegial body such as Congress is that its members do not eat their own. Many of them live in glass houses so they would be reluctant to launch stones (or even pebbles) at each other. The President is also unlikely to expend his political capital on this Quixotic quest. He does not know, for one, whether he will be running over some of his Congressional supporters in the process. In short, the probability of a trial in the Senate or the House –and I am understating the odds- is zero.

So how does the President feed the nation’s hunger for blood? Given the turbulence and political risks of a Congressional investigation, his best bet is to throw everything at the lady and see what gives. In her case, she has the resources to lawyer up and do whatever. She knows how the system works. If she can stay healthy and still be standing by May 2016 she should be ok. And who knows, maybe a bigger scandal will come along and she will be off the public radar.

As for coal trading, all the business tycoons are now looking into it.

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Follow The Money

Pork Barrel: Granting of funds to legislators for their projects.

Bathtub: Place to store one’s share of pork barrel.

                                         —o—

 The stench from rotting pork is nauseating.

There is the P10 billion in ghost projects financed by the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) of 5 senators and 23 Congressmen. This follows the P728 million fertilizer scam, the P195 million ZNAC bogus PDAFs of 3 Senators, the P20 million thrash deodorizers (send it to Congress!) of two Senators, and the P2.2 billion of 98 legislators to 244 bogus NGOs. And the beat goes on.

 Like unfaithful partners, the lawmakers have fallen on the classic defense of deny, deny, deny.  They claim (a) the attacks are “politically motivated” (b) their role is only to recommend, not to audit and (c) they are victims of fraud.

 This is the PDAF process:

1. The Government lists in its Budget a “project menu” of eligible PDAFs. Legislators then designate the beneficiaries and specific Government agency where they want “their money” spent  (P200 million per Senator, P70 million per Congressman).

2. The legislators’ recommendations are reviewed by the Senate and House leadership and finance committees and then endorsed to the Budget Dept. (DBM) for approval.

3. After review the DBM issues a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) to the implementing agency e.g. DPWH.

4. The implementing agency bids out the project to suppliers.

5. Once awarded, the proposing legislator requests DBM for a Notice of Cash Allocation which is released to the implementing agency to pay the winning supplier.

The business model is complicated but not rocket science: It’s about making the calls and making the deposits. So let us debunk the myths:

1. Only Congress can cancel the PDAF- This claim by DBM Sec. Abad (whose office is at the heart of the controversy) is not altogether true. PDAF is a law but Malacanang sets its funding – like it could be zero.

2. Lawmakers propose, they do not dispose- Legislators are elemental to the process as are the DBM and the implementing agencies. For any scheme to succeed, the system must be wired all the way and this takes a certain skill. This explains why, rather than reinvent the wheel, legislators return to the same trough time and again. One action star Senator reportedly coursed his PDAF to a certain lady huckster 22 times, another 20 times, another (non-action star) 18 times until they reached P10 billion. Popular does not start to describe her.

Senate President Drilon, the CBCP and 99% of Filipinos are right, the PDAF should be abolished. Legislators are elected to legislate, not fund projects. The latter is the role of the Executive. Congressmen argue they alone know the needs of their districts. Senators -whose mandate is national- cannot even argue the same (more on this later).

 Pork makes a mockery of the Constitutional provision for checks and balances. With pork, the Executive and the Legislative are co-dependents in a conspiracy (like the patient holding his dentist’s testicles: “We won’t hurt each other, will we?”).

 Pork is the single largest perpetrator of family dynasties. In a study dated July 2012, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism concluded many Senators funneled their PDAFs to “local Governments usually led by their relatives as conduits and poured big pork to cities that are their political bailiwicks.” It cited 4 Senators, all members of the ruling coalition, who have either a spouse, son or brother-in-law as mayor, wife or brother as Congressman, or had massive property developments that benefited from road funding. Their idea of infrastructure, obviously, is building political moats.

Pork is financial lust waiting to happen. A Senator’s salary is P540,000 a year or P3.24 million over his 6 year term. His PDAF allocation? P1.2 billion per term, P2.4 billion for two terms, non-inflation adjusted. At the reported 30-50% cut, you do the math. No wonder Senators spend over P100 million to get elected.

The PDAF budget is better spent elsewhere. It is 65% of the Health budget; is 27 times the allocation to build schools for our kids; and is over 10% of our fiscal deficit which we pay taxes to cover.

The nation has called for an investigation of PDAF. Unfortunately politicians are not wont to eat their own, they prefer to laugh all the way to the bank. The Administration could end this legalized heist. Sadly, its response to the national outrage (and please do not talk about additional monitoring) is actually to increase the PDAF budget by 10% to P27 billion! Take that, Daan Matuwid. So every time another scandal erupts –and there will be more- we are reminded who wrote the multi-billion peso check that makes it all possible.

President Aquino, I suspect, is philosophically against pork but, like Lancelot’s sword, he perhaps feels powerless without it. Or is there something we do not get? Sir, if the governance is right, the politics will follow.

In the meantime, investigators should –like with CJ Corona- follow the money. If nothing else, we want to know whose bathtub our money ended up with.

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Anatomy of a SONA

Every President has a SONA template. This way he does not have to reinvent the wheel year after year. This is President Aquino’s template:

Set the stage- Check. The President establishes the proceedings with the question: Why are we here? His answer in the past was because GMA put us here. That practice, however, has worn thin since he increasingly owns his outcomes. This year the President alluded only once to the sins of the past. The 2013 answer: Because the Filipino wants change.

Roll out the accomplishments (or if you have it, flaunt it)- Check. A SONA is as much an ode to a President as it is a report card of his people. Cabinet officials kill to have their stuff included and Presidents allow it as a small reward for their labor. This explains the length of SONAs: This year it took an hour to lay out the litany of Government achievements. Compounding this, the President likes to display his command of the minutiae of governance. Thus he talked about the Bangsamoro peace talks and the investment grade; but he also explained the economics of the MRT fares and classroom books. The President, noticeably, omitted reference to the stock market, the urban real estate boom and other bounties of the rich, things 99% of his audience know nothing about.

Praise your staff- Check. In this segment the President recognizes special members of his official family. Like the Oscars, Cabinet officials eagerly await the nominations. This year the President cited Secretaries Singson (the President’s pet, he has been hailed in every SONA), Jimenez (another favorite), Luistro and Albert del Rosario. The latter was saluted for his derring-do in Libya but it was really a message to China that the President is backing Sec. Albert’s strong position on the Spratlys (Del Rosario, incidentally, was caught on TV with a translator’s headset raising speculation he either (a) sought to bond with his foreign ambassadors (b) wanted to hear the Presidential praise right (c) is not conversant in the vernacular or (d) was testing his noise-cancelling device).

Trot out Filipino heroes- Check. Here the President recognizes ordinary Filipinos who in their daily lives exemplify the values he wishes to espouse. President Ramos was the first to adopt this with Mang Pandoy. This year the President cited Niño Aguirre and police officers Edlyn Arbo and Felipe Moncatar. Borrowing from the advertising industry, the President also presented video testimonials of citizens who have benefited from the Government’s many poverty programs.

Deliver the Year’s Message- Check. This year’s homily was opportunity, personal accountability, trust, duty and national transformation. In the past it was blame it on the girl.

“Widespread opportunity is key to sustained progress,” he said. “The only ones who may be left behind are the ones who do not seize the opportunity”. He did not quite say how the Filipino is to do this but never mind.

On personal accountability: “You are the ones who will determine whether the fruits of our labor become sweet and ripe for the picking…”. Believe me, the over-taxed metaphors sound better in Tagalog.

On trust: “For every Filipino who believes in the strength of small kindness, this is your SONA”. “To our Muslim brothers:  We are all Filipinos. Let us put an end to this conflict”.

On duty: “ I would not be able to live with myself if I had refused to alleviate the suffering of Filipinos.”  I always assumed he did it because he loved us.

End with a feel-good moment- Check.  The idea is to finish what can be a ho-hum affair with –literally for some- a wake-up call.This year the high-five line was: “I am Noynoy Aquino and I proudly say to the world: How wonderful to be a Filipino today” (Shades of Sec. Jimenez’ “It’s more fun in the Philippines”).

This year’s SONA was both exhaustive and exhausting. Pundits decried the lack of a road map for jobs, mention of China, pork barrel and the FOI bill. In my mind the real elephant in the room (and he was in the audience) was the issue of Presidential succession. The President referenced it obliquely saying, without looking at Number Two, the onus is with us (“What will happen in 2016? It will be you who will make certain what we have here will continue”).

And this must be the message of this SONA. What will happen in three years is our call. If Filipinos share the prosperity, if we become more accountable for our acts, emulate those who serve us well, believe in ourselves and care for each other; we can become the nation we want to be, our leaders beware.

It took our President 55 pages, 11,641 words and one hour and 42 minutes to say this but if this is the price for his service to the nation, I can live with it. Thank you, sir.

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