[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo delivers her State of the Nation Address (SONA) at the Batasang Pambansa yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, JULY 29, 2008 (STAR) By Paolo Romero and Marvin Sy - The “tough choices” made by the administration will help the country survive and emerge stronger from the global food and fuel crunch, President Arroyo said yesterday.

In her 58-minute State of the Nation Address, Mrs. Arroyo also stressed that there is no easy cure for the country’s economic ailment, which she said is global in nature.

Yesterday’s SONA was Mrs. Arroyo’s eighth since assuming the presidency from Joseph Estrada in 2001.

With the presidential elections just 22 months away, the President also vowed “not (to) allow anyone to stand in the way of the progress and prosperity of our countrymen.”

“As your President, I care too much about this nation to let anyone stand in the way of our people’s well being,” she declared.

“I will let no one – and no one’s political plans – threaten our nation’s survival,” she said.

She also vowed to stay the course and continue with her much-criticized but vital economic policies, including the value-added tax (VAT) on oil and power, to allow the country to become food and energy self-sufficient.

“While we can take some comfort that our situation is better than many other nations, there is no substitute for solving the problem of rice and fuel here at home,” the President said. “In doing so, let us be honest and clear eyed — there has been a fundamental shift in global economics,” she said.

“The price of food and fuel will likely remain high. Nothing will be easy; the government cannot solve these problems overnight. But we can work to ease the near-term pain investing on long-term solutions,” she said.

She noted the country was looking towards a brighter future when 2007 ended with its strongest economic growth in a generation.

She said it was a period of low inflation, strong peso and more than a million new jobs.

She said the current global crisis is worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s and the end of World War II and is more difficult to address than the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

“This is a complex time that defies simple and easy solutions. For starters, it is hard to identify villains, unlike in the 1997 financial crisis,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

“We are on a roller coaster ride of oil price hikes, high food prices and looming economic recession in the US and other markets. Economic uncertainty has moved like a terrible tsunami around the globe, wiping away gains, erasing progress,” she pointed out.

But Mrs. Arroyo said her administration’s tough but unpopular measures have prepared the country for the worst.

“Through foresight, grit and political will, we built a shield around our country that has slowed down and somewhat softened the worst effects of the global crisis,” she said.

Mrs. Arroyo cited various government measures that have allowed ordinary Filipinos to cope with the rising consumer prices.

She said the campaign against mulcting cops allowed public utility drivers to earn more. She even cited the case of jeepney driver Federico Alvarez, who was in the gallery, who now earns P500 a day plying the Cubao-Rosario route from P200 before the campaign was launched.

“Texting is a way of life. I asked the telecommunications companies to cut the cost of messages between networks. They responded. It is now down to 50 centavos,” the President said.

The National Telecommunications Commission confirmed the text rate cut between networks, saying it was good for three months.

“The Land Bank has quadrupled loans for farmers and fisherfolk. That is fact not fiction. Check it. For more effective credit utilization, I instructed the Department of Agriculture to revitalize farmers cooperatives,” she said.

She said the government is providing seeds at subsidized prices to help farmers while the incremental Malampaya national revenues of P4 billion will go to rice self-sufficiency program.

She said that strict government monitoring as well as cooperation of farmers and the people, have stabilized prices of rice offered by the National Food Authority (NFA).

She said that since she assumed office in 2001, new irrigation systems have been unveiled for 146,000 hectares and old ones restored for 980,000 hectares of rice lands.

Rice production since 2000 has increased by an average of 4.07 percent a year, twice the population growth rate, she said.

“To meet the challenge of today, we will feed our people now, not later, and help them get through these hard times. To meet the challenges of tomorrow, we must become more self-reliant, self-sufficient and independent, relying on ourselves more than on the world,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

She also said the global energy crunch demands better and more focused resource mobilization, conservation and management.

She said government agencies are reducing their energy and fuel bills by 10 percent.

“To reduce power system losses, we count on government regulators and also on EPIRA (Electric Power Industry Reform Act) amendments,” Mrs. Arroyo said, referring to the proposed amendments to the law.

“We are successful in increasing energy self sufficiency — 56 percent, the highest in our history. We promote natural gas and biofuel; geothermal fields, among the world’s largest; windmills like those in Ilocos and Batanes; and the solar cells lighting many communities in Mindanao,” she said.

She said the new Galoc oil field in Palawan can produce 17,000-22,000 barrels per day or one-twelfth of the country’s crude consumption.

“Our costly commodity imports like oil and rice should be offset by hard commodities exports like primary products, and soft ones like tourism and cyber services, at which only India beats us,” she said.

VAT stays

Mrs. Arroyo also vowed to keep VAT and other unpopular but necessary measures in place to help the country weather the crisis “we inherited.”

“Take VAT away and you and I abdicate our responsibility as leaders and pull the rug from under our present and future progress, which may be compromised by the global crisis,” she said.

She said the VAT would reduce debt and shore up the country’s fiscal independence.

She said the collections of the VAT have strengthened the trust and confidence of international investors and finance community in the country.

“If the VAT on power and oil would be scrapped, it would benefit the rich who consume 84 percent of oil and 90 percent of electricity while hurting the poor who will lose P80 billion for programs… Take away VAT and we strip our people of the means to ride out the world food and energy crisis,” the President said.

“We have come too far and made too many sacrifices to turn back now on fiscal reforms. Leadership is not about doing the first easy thing that comes to mind; it is about doing what is necessary, however hard,” she said.

“The government has persevered, without flip-flopping, in its much-criticized but irreplaceable policies, including oil and power VAT and oil deregulation,” she said.

Anti-corruption record defended

President Arroyo also defended yesterday her administration’s record in fighting graft and corruption even as she scored detractors for making “accusations without evidence and privilege speeches without accountability.”

Mrs. Arroyo, whose administration has been rocked by corruption scandals, pointed out that numerous measures have been implemented to fight corruption, including strengthening the Office of the Ombudsman.

“Our investments also include essential ways to strengthen our institutions of governance in order to fight the decades old scourge of corruption,” she said.

“I will continue to fight this battle every single day,” Mrs. Arroyo said. “While others are happy with headlines through accusation without evidence and privilege speeches without accountability, we have allocated more than P3 billion —the largest anti-graft fund in our history —for real evidence gathering and vigorous prosecution,” she pointed out.

From its past dismal record, she said the Ombudsman’s conviction rate has increased 500 percent. The Office of the Ombudsman is the main prosecuting body of the government for erring public officials.

Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez has been under attack from Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio for allegedly being beholden to politicians, a charge the former strongly denies. Villa-Ignacio himself is under investigation for estafa, a charge he said was politically motivated.

Several corruption scandals have rocked the Arroyo administration in the past months including the $329-million national broadband network controversy and the P728-million so-called fertilizer scam.

Legislative inquiries into the scandals were fruitless because of Mrs. Arroyo’s Executive 464 that bars officials from testifying before lawmakers without her approval.

“Lifestyle checks, never seriously implemented before our time, have led to the dismissal and/or criminal prosecution of dozens of corrupt officials,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

Mrs. Arroyo called on Congress to enact a stricter anti-corruption law or to amend the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

“More advanced anti-corruption practices require a commensurate advance in legislative responses. Colleagues in Congress, we need a more stringent Anti Graft Act,” she said. – with Rainier Allan Ronda

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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