Monday, July 24, 2006

State of the Nation

The constitution of the Philippines requires the President to appear before Congress and deliver her “State of the Nation” (SONA) address on the third Monday July each year. The idea was that the President can present her accomplishments and plans to the legislature and the people.

The whole idea of the Head of State appearing before parliament started with the English Sovereigns who called parliament on their whim if they wanted something done (more taxes, ex post facto bills, lop somebody’s head off etc). As representative government evolved, parliament became supreme in passing laws. The Monarch became under the law rather than above the law. While she can still summon parliament on a whim (The Queen retains this prerogative to this day and so does the President of the Philippines), she rarely if ever does. In the case of the Queen of England, constitutional convention forbids her to express her political opinion in public. When Parliament new sitting starts; The Queen just reads the speech from the throne, something that may or may not reflect her personal opinion but written by the Prime Minister outlining his program of government.  Walter Bagehot describes the Queen’s right as to “be advised, consult and warn” but only to her Prime Minister and convention prevents the PM to disclose the nature of their conversation to the public. This is not to say that Her Majesty Elizabeth II cannot play politics, she does but does so discreetly that her subjects are never offended.  

In contrast the President of the Philippines is supremely political. She dispenses money, favours, sinecures and honours to strengthen her hold on power sometimes discreetly but many times indiscreetly. Her government has detained without charge people considered “subversive to the elected government”. But the Supreme Court struck down these arguments and thus the citizen is left only with one conclusion. She has acted beyond what the law permits.

And so many people view this as one of the reasons why they have to protest this year’s State of the Nation address. And this is why the business of governing the country stops and business holds its breath. Obviously this SONA business has lost its usefulness. We have a Parliament-of-the Street SONA, an opposition party SONA, a grandstanding has been Senator’s SONA, a Nat-Dem SONA etc. Will the real SONA please stand up?

Thus perhaps it is really time to amend the constitution and remove from the President the right to deliver the SONA simply because the presidency has become so damaging to the body politic. The right should be given to the true Sovereign of the Republic. This is no one but the Citizen. Of course we cannot expect all citizens to be at the Batasan podium. A computer can easily randomly pick who will give this year’s SONA. Of course we should give him/her time to prepare. And any taxpayer can be selected. And this could be your neighbourhood cop, a soldier commanded by the President to destroy the NPA, the public school teacher with 90 kids in her classroom, the underpaid rural doctor desperately trying to become a nurse overseas, the taho vendor, your barber or hairdresser, a college student, a parent and the list goes on.

And this will put an end to politicians using the poor as props in every Opening of Congress.

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