On a few occasions in the last couple of weeks, when his name came up as a potential appointee to the Cabinet, Cavite Rep. Joseph Abaya always responded by saying he was a good soldier, and would help President Aquino in whatever capacity. We like that image of the good soldier, because it suggests a bracing sense of duty, to flag and country.
That sense was almost palpable last Friday, when both Abaya and Secretary Mar Roxas accepted their new marching orders from the President: Roxas to the Department of the Interior and Local Government, Abaya to replace Roxas at the Department of Transportation and Communications.
A tired Roxas looked like he felt the full weight of his new assignment, to fill the “big tsinelas” or slippers, in his politically astute phrase, of his friend the late Jesse Robredo.
What kind of appointee would Roxas make? Last week, we offered a basic taxonomy of DILG chiefs, culled from historical experience: some were executives appointed to tame the DILG bureaucracy, some were enforcers who prioritize peace and order, and some were electors, politicians who harness the department’s resources for political gain.
Critics of Roxas from both the right and the left, and also unnamed ones from within the administration, immediately saw his appointment as politically motivated; they said he was being deployed to the DILG to promote the interests of the Liberal Party he was party president of, and to which President Aquino belongs.
The notion that there is something untoward about appointing LP leaders to high positions can be quickly dealt with. The President ran as a Liberal, on a Liberal-coalition platform; if he were to stay true to his campaign commitments, shouldn’t he appoint those he ran with?
The idea that Roxas was moved to the DILG to prepare for the 2013 and even the 2016 elections—that is not so easily dismissed. But we must point out that Roxas, who topped the elections the last time he ran for the Senate, is not included in the slate of senators President Aquino is forming for next year’s polls; if Roxas were solely interested in higher elective office, would he put himself out of the running?
It is also difficult to imagine Roxas wearing Robredo’s uniform of plain shirt, shorts and slippers and then mixing with the people; his public image as a well-groomed “Mr. Palengke” shows him simultaneously part of and apart from ordinary people. We can also anticipate that he will need to learn to be more accessible, to just about anyone, if he is to truly follow in Robredo’s footsteps.
But on other key criteria, Roxas—and Abaya too—fit the Robredo-esque bill. They share a deserved reputation for professionalism; in Roxas’ case, it is a reputation that has survived service in the Cabinet of three very different presidents.
We can expect both Roxas and Abaya, then, to be both magaling and matino—to use Robredo’s own terms of art for effective professionalism—in their new assignments.
Roxas and Abaya also share Robredo’s reformist agenda; the difference is that they would have learned from Robredo’s initial, sorry experience at the DILG. We note that while Abaya said he would work with the “high-caliber” team Roxas assembled at the DOTC and would only need to hire an executive assistant, Roxas emphasized that the President had given him the necessary authority to reconstitute the leadership team at the DILG—a pointed reference to the unusual case of Undersecretary Rico Puno, who had served as an alternative source of power in Robredo’s department.
We can expect Roxas and Abaya, then, to pursue reforms in good governance that their ally Robredo would have approved.
Above all: Despite a long political career, Roxas has never been tainted with any rumors of corruption. (Abaya too.) It is not that his own family’s great wealth insulates him from temptation; after all, there are any number of already wealthy politicians who suffer from unmoderated greed. It is or must be a matter of character, learned from the self-sacrificing example of his own father, the late senator Gerardo Roxas.
We can expect Roxas, then, and Abaya too, to be like Robredo in this vital regard: They will keep to the straight and narrow.
It is telling that, on the day of his appointment, Roxas made sure to mention to the media that he not only had the President’s full backing, he also had the support of the widow Leni Robredo—it was like a seal of approval, a benediction almost, on soldiers out to fight the good fight.