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By Maria Eloisa I. Calderon

A peek into Duterte Cabinet dynamics


Posted on December 21, 2016

FROM land conversion to mining to wages, the sundry issues that President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s Cabinet men have debated have given a rare glimpse into divisions among top policy makers.

What would have been clear dissenting voice in Mr. Duterte’s team -- that of Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo -- has been muted with her breaking ranks on the eve of a Dec. 5 Cabinet meeting, but Mr. Duterte is still left with alter egos who see the world’s problems through a prism that -- as with Ms. Robredo -- may not mirror his.

And that’s not entirely bad, said Ma. Nieves R. Confesor, an Asian Institute of Management professor who had served as labor chief in the twilight of the term of the late former president Corazon C. Aquino -- whose Cabinet men came from opposite ends of the political spectrum -- as well as in the first three years of former president Fidel V. Ramos.

“To have a very homogenous Cabinet would scare me. Why? Because you’re looking at just one angle,” Ms. Confesor, who was also chief peace negotiator under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo -- now representative of Pampanga’s second legislative district, said in a Dec. 16 interview.

“The volatility of the world is not going to get less. So what you need are more eyes and a different thinking,” she added.

“That kind of a world will require a Cabinet that looks like what Duterte has now, together with Leni,... to handle the complexity. You need to keep also the dissenting voice all the time.”

With Mr. Duterte staffing top government posts with militants, socialists, an environment advocate, capitalists and economists, the question at the end of the day is whose voice prevails.

“One expresses his opinion and if the President agrees, then everybody toes the line,” Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, who said he did not miss a single Cabinet meeting since Mr. Duterte assumed office on June 30, told BusinessWorld.

Environment Secretary Regina Paz “Gina” L. Lopez -- whose crackdown on illegal miners was viewed by critics as hurting potential investments -- found herself again addressing media queries as to how she can have her boss’s ear when her latest target involves a presidential appointee, special envoy to the US Jose E. B. Antonio.

The staunch environment advocate last week stopped a housing project at the La Mesa Watershed by a subsidiary of listed property developer Century Properties Group, Inc., whose founder is Mr. Antonio.

“You know what my experience with the President is? It’s that he really has his interest for the common good... Number two, he really doesn’t like corruption,” Ms. Lopez told a media briefing on Dec. 15.

“So it’s in these two aspects that we... have a resonance.”

Before that, local media had reported she and Finance Secretary Carlos “Sonny” G. Dominguez III clashed over mining policy. Mr. Dominguez is a childhood friend of the President and the latter’s major campaign donor who, before assuming the cabinet post, resigned from the board of Alsons Consolidated Resources, Inc., an indirect shareholder in the Tampakan copper-gold mine project.

But the frictions have somewhat eased, Mr. Pernia said in a Dec. 15 interview at his office.

“Gina said she’s going to allow responsible mining, companies that follow the law meticulously,” recounts Mr. Pernia.

“In other words, Gina has somewhat moved from extreme left towards the center,” he said while asserting that Mr. Dominguez “has not been an advocate of mining.”

The environmental crackdown does not worry the chief economic manager either. “It’s not a terrible dampener to economic growth,” Mr. Pernia said.

Ms. Lopez told BusinessWorld separately that she liked the fact that “Sonny wanted to sign the Paris agreement,” a United Nations-backed deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions; and that in reconciling differences, the President “is a unifying factor.”

BusinessWorld tried to get the side of Mr. Dominguez but he did not respond to calls and mobile phone messages.

The cabinet has 22 members. Nine of them -- including Ms. Lopez -- still await the nod of the Commission on Appointments.

While the voices were discordant, none was openly critical of Mr. Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign and his decision to give the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos a hero’s burial.

“These issues that have come out are not do-or-die issues. There are bigger things,” Ms. Confesor said, noting how some cabinet members who were former political detainees chose not to quit.

“You really have to be good at conflict management because you need to ensure that the conflict -- and conflict is healthy -- does not become unhealthy.”

But nine Cabinet meetings (by Mr. Pernia’s reckoning) since Mr. Duterte took over have left observers scratching their heads: the President’s men have not agreed on anything much but the war on illegal drugs.

They squabbled over converting agricultural lands into industrial parks, with the economic team shooting down militant group leader and now Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael V. Mariano’s proposal to wait for another two years to do so.

“We wrote a dissenting paper. We drafted the paper signed by Dominguez, [Budget Secretary Benjamin E.] Diokno, [Trade Secretary Ramon] Mon [M.] Lopez and Vice-President Robredo. Five of us signed it,” Mr. Pernia said.

“It was listened to, because they had to revise the EO [executive order].”

Minimum wage is also a sticky issue that has pitted left-leaning cabinet men against the technocrats and bureaucrats among their peers -- a tug-of-war between those with a penchant for populist measures and those who worry about fiscal health.

In September, Labor Undersecretary Joel B. Maglunsod, a former Anakpawis Partylist representative, backed calls for a P125 across-the-board wage hike; while at the Dec. 5 Cabinet meeting, Social Welfare Secretary Judy M. Taguiwalo, an activist, pushed for higher Christmas cash gifts to casual employees. Both proposals were thumbed down.

“[Labor Secretary Silvestro H.] Bello agreed with us,” Mr. Pernia said, referring to the Cabinet discussion over the proposed P125 across-the-board pay increase that was to supplant region-specific daily minimum wage levels.

“We told him: This is bad, pare. This is going to set back our GDP growth rate, unemployment and poverty targets,” he added.

BMI Research, a unit of global ratings agency Fitch, had earlier this month flagged as a political risk the “wider discontent within Duterte’s Cabinet over his style of leadership” following the resignation of Ms. Robredo.

But that concern may be overblown, with the lack of other signs, so far, that Mr. Duterte’s team -- though asymmetrical -- is faltering.

“The three of us are solid: Dominguez, Diokno and myself,” said Mr. Pernia.