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BBM as concurrent agri sec: Pros and cons

PRESIDENT-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. will be the country’s first president ever to be concurrently secretary of agriculture. It may have its advantages, but it also has serious disadvantages, and even risks.

There are three precedents for a president holding a portfolio during his term, but only for the Defense secretary post: Manuel Quezon (five months in 1941 just before the war); Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. (one year to January 1967); and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (for a month in 2003 and two months to Feb. 1, 2007).

In a way though, BBM is following the footsteps of his father, who assumed the defense post as soon as he became president on Dec. 31, 1965, to give it up about a year later in January 1967.

While Arroyo became Defense secretary twice, as she needed time to find the right person for the job, BBM appears to have decided to assume the agriculture post as a governance decision.

“I think the problem in the agriculture sector is severe enough that I have decided to take on the portfolio,” he said the other day. “This will not only make it clear what a high priority we put on the agricultural sector, but also as a practical matter so things will move quickly.”

Heading the Agriculture department, surprisingly, is a post BBM has the best qualifications for, given his experience in that sector. He is the first Philippine president to have spent the major part of his political career — 12 years as governor, six as vice governor and three as representative — in an agricultural province, Ilocos Norte. The province is a microcosm of Philippine agriculture as its dominant crop is rice and corn, with tobacco, a cash crop, as its third produce, but declining fast in prominence because of the drastic weakening of global and local demand for tobacco. Reflecting the small-farm characteristic of the Philippine agricultural sector, the average Ilocos farm size is just about 1 hectare.

Crucial

The agriculture sector indeed remains crucial in the country, accounting for 10 percent of GDP and 25 percent of employment. What makes it more important than its contribution to the economy is the fact that the majority of poor Filipinos are farmers (32 percent) and fisherfolk (26 percent). Some 24 percent of Filipinos living in rural areas are poor, in sharp contrast to the 9 percent poor in urban areas.

Holding that post, he would have a hands-on feel of the Agriculture department, one of the biggest bureaucracies. Little known to most Filipinos, with documentation and reports for these very little as it involves small-scale graft, corruption in the department is prevalent, with the experience of most Filipinos in graft are those involving its agencies. Why are fertilizer and rice magnates among the richest, yet hidden, tycoons in the country?

BBM as Agriculture secretary could therefore use his experience there as a template for ridding the entire government of corruption and reforming it to do its work of providing services, even lowering prices for certain products.

However, BBM having in effect two jobs has its disadvantages and risks. The presidency of this still Third World nation is a full-time job even in normal times. But we are not in normal times, with gasoline prices zooming up because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise in inflation in the US and Europe which almost automatically will be transmitted to us, and the prospect of a global recession on the scale of or even worse than the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

Macroeconomic

BBM can’t just leave macroeconomic management to his economic team, as it requires a multi-faceted approach, some of which only he can undertake, such as an appeal as president to Saudi Arabia not to raise the price of the oil it sells to the Philippines. Another example: it is only BBM who can plead to the big industries, especially petroleum-product distributors, to mitigate their greed. Only BBM can sit down with legislators to work with them to pass legislation that will help shield the country from the impact of a global economic recession, as Arroyo did when she got Congress to enact the P1 trillion Economic Stimulus Law, that was crucial in our country’s weathering of the 2008-2009 global crisis. Another huge work BBM must undertake is to enact legislation that would create a mechanism for stabilizing prices of petroleum products, like the Oil Price Stabilization Fund (OPSF) that his father created.

For the president to take on the job of heading a department could be like the captain of a passenger airplane taking on “concurrently” the job of flight engineer. As his attention would be divided, both tasks would suffer, with potentially fatal consequences for the scores of airline passengers. This is the reason why only three presidents so far in our history took on department portfolios.

BBM as agri secretary is easier said than done. Only BBM has the sole power to sign the appointments of 2,000 important positions (from secretaries to directors, boards of scores of government firms) and 3,000 more less-important posts. He can’t be too careful since con men and even Pink saboteurs will be flocking to Malacañang pretending that they want to serve the country. Just new as president, it would take him at least six months to know what needs to be done, and to give the proper directives to his officials.

Commuting between the Agriculture department’s offices in the Elliptical Road in Quezon City and Malacañang, even with escorts, would take BBM at least one hour round trip at best — very important executive time would be lost, unless he rides in a van where he can have his meetings. Commuting between Malacañang and the department will be a security nightmare that will require a huge security force to secure the avenues and roads that he would have to pass. If it is the agriculture officials who would go to Malacañang to meet with BBM, it is simply they who would lose executive time, and without escorts, of at least three hours.

Why not convince the vice president, Sara Duterte-Carpio, to instead be the agricultural secretary? As vice mayor and then mayor of Davao City, the urban center of a huge agricultural region, she would have more feel for agriculture’s problems than for education. As his vice president, BBM can ask Sara to consult with him often regarding her work there.


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