March 24, 2017, 12:03 pm
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‘Game of Thrones’

IN the HBO hit series “Game of Thrones,” audiences are equally enthralled with the constant maneuverings and scheming involved in the King’s Small Council, which is made up of allies, advisors, family members, and trusted supporters. 

Sometimes the Small Council does good and ends up supporting the King; sometimes, petty squabbles and slights among its members result in overthrowing the occupant of the Iron Throne. 

The Cabinet of the President of the Philippines is in many ways similar to the fictional Small Council of King’s Landing. 

From the beginning of any president’s term, political observers keep a close watch on who ends up where, made more interesting by the inevitable jockeying and jostling between power blocs within an incoming administration. 

As members of the Official Family, cabinet secretaries are the president’s alter egos under the doctrine of qualified political agency, which has been long recognized under our legal system in order to assist the Chief Executive in running the government. As alter egos, the decision of the Cabinet as individuals on matters under the purview of their designation stand as long they are not overturned or contradicted by the source of the authority. Depending on the incumbent’s management style, cabinet members may be shuffled as frequently as your playlist on Spotify, changed as often as your smartphone, or unmoving in their positions as the traffic along EDSA, much to the consternation of well-meaning citizens. 

 (Don’t feel too bad for them, my dear millennials and feellennials. Should they feel unnecessarily abused by their boss, they can always take comfort in the fact that a majority of cabinet members can declare a sitting president unfit to discharge the powers and duties of his office by the 1987 Constitution, thereby triggering a succession mechanism.)

It goes without saying that harmony within the Cabinet in terms of policy and professionalism is imperative to the success of any administration. Conversely, in-fighting can and will effectively hamper progress in pushing for the President’s agenda. 

Case in point is the not-so cold war between Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Environment Secretary Gina Lopez. Without a doubt, these two have been on a collision course since the day that Lopez made good on her promise to review existing mining agreements that are detrimental to the environment. After an audit, Lopez shut down mining operations in ten provinces, and intends to suspend more. This seemed to catch her fellow cabinet members off guard, and the rest of the Cabinet scrambled to catch up.

After an uproar from pro-mining stakeholders, Dominguez, through the Mining Industry Coordinating Council, or MICC (the Department of Finance co-chairs this, alongside DENR), ordered a review of the DENR’s audit. Before the MICC review even started, Duterte and his Cabinet intervened by putting on hold DENR’s closure orders. Even as the issue remained unresolved, Lopez faced intense grilling from members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) for her confirmation. Facing opposition left and right from pro-mining groups, local government officials, and groups fearful of losing their jobs in the mining sector, Lopez defended herself and her decisions firmly, as can be expected of a passionate advocate. Little did she know that another chink in her armor would be delivered by no other than a fellow cabinet member: Dominguez himself appeared (which by itself was very strange and unusual, considering that it involved the confirmation of a colleague) in a caucus called by the CA to tell its members that other concerned departments were not consulted on the matter, and that there was a failure to accord the mining firms due process in closing them down. Earlier, Dominguez also let slip a little barb during a Palace press briefing: “Being a secretary is not like being a crusader; being a secretary is balancing the needs of the different sectors in society,” in response to a question if Lopez’s confirmation will be good for government. Lopez has since been bypassed by the CA, and is expected to return for another round of hearings in May, as Duterte himself has confirmed the reappointment of his favorite crusader.

Skirmishes are not uncommon within the Cabinet, and to a certain extent, are expected especially when crafting national policy that cuts across wide swathes of society. But these clashes are best kept within the four walls of the Aguinaldo State Dining Room, far from public view, where differences can be settled away from prying eyes and ears. Seeing the President’s men and women in open combat also unwittingly gives us insight on Duterte’s management style: he lets them duke it out in public either because he cannot control them, or he couldn’t care less that the business of governance is impeded by these public intramurals. 

Back in Westeros, the question Lord Varys poses to Ned Stark expresses it best: “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most when you high lords play your game of thrones?” While we may be temporarily amused to witness the jousting and parrying between the combatants, in the long run, it is the public that will inevitably suffer when the valuable time and energy of our officials is spent clawing at each other rather than working together to solve the long list of maladies confronting our government today.

It’s Complicated

Issues facing government are not always about two sides. Abigail Valte’s law background and deep dive into government provides insight on its inner workings and what factors go into policy decision making.

Her once a week column is an incision on current political and social issues.
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