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This Cabinet outsider leads the way

Palace mouthpiece Harry Roque seems to think notoriety will help him win the Senate seat he plans to seek in 2022. (It’s nothing new; he nursed that ambition even in his first stint putting words in President Duterte’s mouth. His boss, after tickling him pink — “For the past five or six months, he’s been calling me ‘Senator,’” the poor man whined to reporters in October 2018 — proceeded to publicly say that he had as much chance at winning as a snowball in hell: “Tama ka na. ‘Tang-*na diyan. Standby ka. Bigyan kita ng ibang trabaho. Hindi ka manalo diyan.”) He overplays his role; he rubs people the wrong way when he should be deadpan, measured, careful not to draw more odium to his principal than can be helped.

From presuming he could debate with Antonio Carpio after his boss retreated from a challenge personally thrown at Carpio, to condescending to what he called the “jeepney-size” PDP-Laban that he apparently once wanted to join, Roque surprises with his temerity. He has also delighted in behaving like a termagant. In the early months of the lockdown, for example, with the Philippines notching one of the highest infection rates in Asean, he called out women for supposedly not keeping their husbands home, for letting them stray out to their “kulasisi” — concubines — delivering the crass message during a press briefing.

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And he continues to flail at Vice President Leni Robredo, his latest salvo particularly grating because it is a brazen lie: that she has been a mere “palamuti” — ornament — in affairs of the state in these past five years by her own choosing. He has since been put firmly in his place by Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez, who reminded everyone of then Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr.’s message late in 2016: “Gd afternoon Madam Vice President. Mayor Rody Duterte thru Bong Go asked me to relay to you his instruction for you to desist from attending all Cabinet mtngs starting This Monday Dec. 5 2pm. Ty.” (Insiders call the President “Mayor.” Whether it’s an endearment or a sign that he and his minions can’t quite get used to a world larger than Davao City is anybody’s guess.)

That insult pushed the Vice President to give up the housing portfolio assigned to her. But it was not the last of her assignments. In October 2020, piqued that she had called on him to allow the United Nations to look into his centerpiece war on drugs which she described as “obviously not working” and needing a health-based approach, Mr. Duterte dared her to lead it. He named her cochair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs headed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency; against advice, she accepted the offer based on what to her was the “most important yet simple” consideration: “If this is a chance to stop the killing of innocent people and hold those responsible accountable, I will shoulder it.”

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She was sacked within three weeks. But not before she had gathered critical information for a 40-page report, such as: that almost all funds were devoted to neutralizing small-time drug pushers and users, and not to pinpointing the origin of the drugs victimizing Filipinos, or even that no reliable baseline data or standard monitoring process served to guide the antidrug campaign.

As early as then, Robredo raised the necessity of body cameras for police and other law enforcers in antidrug operations. She was denied access to classified information even if, as VP and a member of the National Security Council, she was entitled to it. Her meetings with officials of the US State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and other groups, for the purpose of exchanging ideas preparatory to strengthening antidrug laws, were a “misstep,” per then Palace mouthpiece Salvador Panelo, that boosted the President’s avowed distrust of her and eventually did her in.

But Robredo can’t be reduced to being a Cabinet outsider. Since the onset of the pandemic the Office of the Vice President (OVP) has shown the way to a thoughtful and efficient response to public suffering by providing, in cooperation with the private sector, free transport, medical consultation, food, and other modes of assistance. Lately, along with the Manila city government, it launched the “Vaccine Express” for tricycle drivers and food delivery riders.

The Commission on Audit gave the OVP its highest audit rating for two consecutive years, and in the 2021 budget hearings, the Senate handily approved an increased outlay for it — clear recognition of Robredo’s competence and integrity as a public servant. She is what the battered body politic needs, not Palace claptrap.

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TAGS: Commentary, Harry Roque, Leni Robredo, Rodrigo Duterte, Rosario A. Garcellano
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