Fill Cabinet vacancies now
Five months into his administration, President Marcos Jr. has named nearly all members of his Cabinet, except for three very important departments. He has yet to appoint a permanent secretary for defense, for health, and for agriculture, three positions deemed crucial considering the prolonged presence of the COVID-19 pandemic and risks of other diseases due to the government’s lackluster immunization program, the issues hounding the security sector, including the maritime dispute with China and the delayed modernization of the military establishment, and high prices of farm products.
Jose Faustino Jr., the 10th Armed Forces of the Philippines chief during the Duterte administration, retired as head of the military organization on Nov. 12 last year, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 56. Mr. Marcos named Faustino as defense secretary in June, but due to a yearlong appointment ban on retired military officials, he could serve only as senior undersecretary and officer in charge of the Department of National Defense (DND) in the meantime. He was to hold this position until his scheduled assumption of the top post on Nov. 13 this year, in compliance with the one-year ban. The date passed, and Malacañang still has no word if he would be named full-time defense secretary. This is aside from the issue about the delayed appointments in at least four key positions in the AFP—vice chief of staff, Navy flag officer in command, and commanders of the Southern Luzon and Western Mindanao Commands.
The President must immediately decide on whether or not to appoint Faustino as DND secretary. Same with other vacancies in the AFP.
Mr. Marcos has also continued to delay the appointment of a health secretary, despite the valid reasons that health workers and experts have raised on the urgency of naming a new Department of Health (DOH) chief. Last month, the President explained that he would appoint a regular head of the DOH only if the country’s COVID-19 situation normalizes. While the health department’s highest post remains vacant, the agency is headed by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, who also serves as spokesperson, as officer in charge (OIC) since July. But as the Inquirer had earlier noted, an OIC will find it difficult “to carry on gargantuan tasks of deciding the strategies to address the various health issues afflicting the country, setting timelines for these goals, and delegating them to reliable experts to carry out until such time that a health secretary is appointed.”
This delay is sending the wrong signal to the health sector. House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro has noted, for instance, that “by not appointing a health secretary up till now, [it] shows that the health of the nation is not a priority of the Marcos administration. These problems cannot be fully addressed by an [OIC] because they have limited powers and their initiatives can be overturned when an appointed secretary steps in,” Castro lamented. “Shouldn’t there be an appointment of a health secretary who is competent and has integrity now so that the country can normalize faster?” She also reminded the President that the DOH had other problems to face, such as an increase in cases of cholera, dengue, and diarrhea. Then there are the issues such as the unpaid benefits of nurses and other health workers.
While on the topic of appointments, the President’s continued stay as concurrent agriculture secretary has long been criticized by stakeholders. The reason often cited by Mr. Marcos in keeping the post is that “there are things that the President can do that a secretary cannot, especially because the problems are so difficult that it would take a President to change and turn [them] around.” The President’s resistance to heed calls of agricultural stakeholders, saying he was still “needed” at the Deparment of Agriculture (DA) to institutionalize structural changes, doesn’t seem to make sense. Appointing someone else will free him of much of the hands-on tasks and allow him to concentrate on the more pressing issues required of the President to address.
Also, how can the President devote much-needed time to the DA given his hectic schedule as Chief Executive? By the end of his first six months in office next month, for example, the President would have embarked on seven official trips abroad, taking him away from attending to the problems at the DA. In contrast, a full-time agriculture secretary can focus solely on crafting and implementing the necessary structural changes in the sector.
The President must now name a permanent secretary for the defense, health, and agriculture portfolios and even the press secretary. Naming a full-time chief in these departments will help these agencies undertake measures that will allow the country to strengthen its defense establishment, wean itself away from the pandemic faster, and develop the agriculture sector to bring down prices of basic food items. There seems to be no logical excuse to delay these crucial appointments further.
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