Senators: SONA silent on FOI but showed ‘gentler Aquino’

MANILA, Philippines – If there was one thing sorely lacking in President Benigno Aquino III’s annual address, administration and opposition senators agreed that it was the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.

Senator Grace Poe, principal sponsor of FOI in the Senate, said she was hoping Aquino would push for the long-delayed bill in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to get the House of Representatives to pass the transparency measure.

“It’s my dream. I was hoping FOI would be mentioned but it was not. The President has long said he will not certify it urgent but I am still hopeful,” Poe said after the SONA on Monday, July 28.

Poe said though that she still believes the bill has a chance of passing in the House, a chamber where the bill has traditionally met strong opposition. The Senate passed its own version in March.

“There are still two years left. We passed it in the Senate without the President certifying it urgent so it’s important Congress gets serious, too,” she said.

A campaign promise of Aquino in 2010, the FOI bill aims to institutionalize transparency in government by establishing a process whereby citizens can request government data and documents. Aquino was silent on the bill in his 90-minute speech but earlier said it will be passed before his term ends in 2016.

Aquino addressed a joint session of Congress on Monday in his 5th SONA, which came at a time his popularity dipped to its lowest level over his administration’s spending program. The Supreme Court declared key acts under the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) unconstitutional.

Power crisis details lacking

Senators Juan Edgardo Angara and Nancy Binay said the speech lacked specifics on how the administration will address a possible power crisis in 2015, and how exactly he wants Congress to help resolve the problem.

“I would have wanted to hear more about the concrete solutions of the administration in addressing the looming energy crisis. But otherwise, it was a direct-to-the-point, and sincere speech,” Angara said.

Aquino only said in his speech that he ordered Energy Secretary Jericho to consult with the Joint Congressional Power Commission, industry stakeholders, and consumers to help avert the crisis. He said the sudden shutdown of power plants, and growing demand for energy helped contribute to the problem.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who recommended giving emergency powers to the President, said the move is a “good first step.”

“We might end up giving the President emergency powers if the Power Commission recommends it. It’s the only solution to the crisis,” Trillanes said. He was referring to his proposal for Aquino to use the provision in the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) that allows the President to ask Congress for authority to establish additional generating capacity under approved terms and conditions.

Yolanda inaccurate, supplemental budget OK

Senators also welcomed Aquino’s move to ask Congress for a supplemental budget in 2014 to fund projects under DAP, and for a joint resolution that will clarify issues that the Supreme Court raised in its ruling.

“A supplemental budget is okay so we don’t get confused about DAP. We institutionalize it, and make it supplemental,” said Senator Cynthia Villar.

Villar, chairperson of the Senate agriculture committee, also praised Aquino’s statement that he will stabilize the price of rice by going after hoarders. “I am satisfied with that. It’s the right thing to do. The Customs under Commissioner John Phillip [Sevilla] has been doing a good job so we are happy with that.”

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Binay though said Aquino’s statement on the administration’s swift response to Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was not fully accurate. Marcos’ family, particularly his mother the former first lady Imelda Marcos, hails from Yolanda-devastated Leyte.

“It’s hard to argue with the President in terms of the statistics and the numbers but having been on the ground very, very soon afterward and for a long time afterward, we would like for the government to have done more and we hope the government will continue to do more. We are nearing the first anniversary of Yolanda and one year is already enough for the victims to feel the help of the government,” Marcos said.

Marcos said the government has to do more to address victims’ needs for housing, livelihood, power and assistance to fishermen whose boats were destroyed.

“Of course, we want fast and more help from the government. We’re not yet there but I hope we get there soon,” he added.

Binay said she visited hard-hit provinces soon after Yolanda and the response was not as fast as Aquino described.

“There was delay in the process of giving aid. It wasn’t fast enough. It’s saddening because the system really bogged down the delivery of relief goods,” she said.

Aquino showed ‘human, gentle side’

While they had different views on Aquino’s accomplishments in office, the senators agreed that it was a welcome change for Aquino to adopt a less combative tone compared to his recent speeches attacking the Court over DAP. (READ: Aquino appeals to supporters, belittles critics)

Even Marcos, a vocal critic of Aquino, said as much.

“Before, he defined very much an us and them situation. I think he took a step back from that and I think that’s a good thing for the country. You can’t blame him. All of us in public service are doing it out of emotion, a love of country that’s why we are in public service so no, I think actually it shows a gentler side of the President and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Marcos said.

Aquino ally Senator Teofisto Guingona III agreed. “What his critics are saying are painful and he is not a robot. He is human so he is affected and if you’ve done everything for the people but still get treated that way by people who just want to criticize, that has an effect on you.”

Another ally, Poe said she too turned emotional when the President expressed his sentiments. Poe’s father, the late actor Fernando Poe Jr, ran for president in 2004 but lost to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in an election tainted with cheating allegations.

“Ang pagkatao ng isang pinuno hindi perpekto sa lahat ng aksyon pero ang administrasyon na ito binalik ang tiwala sa institusyon ng presidente. Kaya medyo naging emotional din ako kasi alam ko rin ang pinagdaaanan ng ganoon,” she said.

(The personality of a leader is not perfect in all actions but this administration returned the trust in the institution of the presidency. So I also got emotional because I know what we went through before.) –