‘Thinking aloud’ as state policy

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

Word from Malacañang is that President Bongbong Marcos is FINALLY thinking of appointing a permanent secretary of agriculture. That is definitely good news if it’s true, but given how thinking aloud in meetings and speeches has become tantamount to state policy or presidential suggestion, chances are that the President was once again thinking aloud more than making a decision or being used as an icon for a press release.

Unless there are food riots and rallies due to food inflation, it is likely that we won’t have a permanent DA secretary until February or March of 2023. The biggest challenge PBBM faces in appointing a permanent secretary is finding someone idealistic enough, foolhardy or with a driving motive, enough to make him or her jump into a bottomless whirlpool of challenges.

Based on interviews and conversations I’ve had with opinion writers and agricultural economists, the very few qualified individuals who have, or could, run the Department of Agriculture have been frightened away by the traumatic experience of Undersecretary Salazar during the sugar shortage controversy. Former DA Undersecretary now Manila Times columnist Fermin Adriano shared with us on the program AGENDA that several international level experts at the DA are already packing their bags, waiting for the Dec. 31 deadline and will be leaving their post gladly. Due to a gag order it has become pointless to contact people at the DA to confirm this.

The second hurdle that any nominee would have to pass through is getting the support of the contending power blocs in and outside Malacañang. The would-be permanent secretary would have to be considered as a team player of persons with vested interests in agriculture at the Senate, Congress, the PBBM circle, not to mention the strong lobby groups of agricultural products importers, etc. Getting approval is just half of it. The would-be DA secretary would then have to walk a tightrope under the scrutiny of the actual farmers, producers, exporters who are often the least served in the totem pole of agriculture.

There are vacancies in the PBBM administration but no takers. If the President himself couldn’t get the cart to move, who can? Having a qualified and competent DA secretary? Wish ko lang!

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Speaking of “thinking aloud” and commentaries becoming state policy under the BBM administration, there has been serious pushback against the statement quoted from President Bongbong Marcos expressing concern and describing the Temporary Restraining Order issued by the Court of Appeals on the Energy Regulatory Commission or ERC as “deleterious” and “unfortunate.” Worse, the President went further to suggest to the CA to consider certain points in making their decision, especially public interest. That, sir, is telling the CA how to do their job.

The incident has raised a lot of hackles for various reasons. Courtesy and the principle of separation of powers as well as constitutionally provided check and balance dictate that the President should respect the judiciary and its actions and decisions. Publicized statements such as the one issued from Malacañang on behalf of PBBM as well as the presidential suggestion amounts to meddling and pressure from the President.

One presumes that the justices of the Court of Appeals hold their esteemed positions based on their knowledge of law, experience in court and their devotion to justice and public interest. By emphasizing on the issue of public interest, President Bongbong Marcos makes his case using a populist argument for the political gain of his administration but at the expense of private parties. If anything, the presidential statement was premature because the TRO was clearly necessary for the CA to be able to review the facts and consequences and not act like the ERC that simply dismissed the petition by imposing the provisions of contract as final.

The issue before the CA is whether or not the ERC abused its power, was unjust in its decisions and actions, whether the parties before the court have legal basis for their petition and if they face irreparable financial ruin that will ultimately be injurious to the parties as well as the public in general. PBBM cited increased prices becoming a burden to the public, but overlooked the aftermath if the party involved were to go bankrupt. That will also lead to increased power rates, but also power shortage, financial dislocation, unemployment, etc.

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If anything, we should all be concerned about so-called statements allegedly made by the President or issued on behalf of the President. I can’t help but wonder if the word “deleterious” is a word that PBBM normally uses or something that was added in by some lawyer-writer trying to make PBBM sound well informed in legal parlance. In all his media engagements and speeches, PBBM has kept his dialogue clear, simple and easy to understand. Legalese is not his style, so I wonder if it is also possible that someone wrangled the statement from Malacañang in order to head off the actions being considered by the Court of Appeals.

As I always teach my students and seminar participants, statements with grave repercussions should be made in person and not secondhand press release. That way, there is no doubt about legitimacy and authenticity. When Malacañang announced the first presidential veto that nullified the proposed Bulacan Economic Zone, the statement sent shivers among investors and created the impression that PBBM was anti-business. It took several days to clarify that miscommunication and calm nerves of investors.

The latest “comment” and suggestion of PBBM on the TRO solicited almost the same reaction from companies who are subject to regulatory agencies of government. As one business executive put it: “Does this mean that we don’t have the right to bring such matter to court as provided by law and the Constitution?”


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