“Duterte’s Policy Process”, a Commentary by Malcolm Cook

Commentary 2016/65, 30 September 2016

The predominantly profane language President Duterte uses to announce presidential changes to Philippine foreign and security policy continues to capture headlines. The substance of these changes – distancing the Philippines from the United States and adopting approaches to the South China disputes favoured by China – and the sharp reversal from the foreign and security policy stance of the preceding Aquino administration they represent are causing concern for those that supported the Aquino stance.

Yet there is a much deeper and broader problem with these presidential policy changes that should concern all affected by Philippine policy choices. It is increasingly obvious that many of the most significant policy changes announced by the president are his initiative alone without any prior development, debate or even communication with the affected Philippine government departments and ministers. Many of these are made in an off-cuff manner during presidential speeches or in impromptu press scrums.

This extremely personalised and unprocessed approach to policy change has two damaging outcomes. First, it leads to policy confusion when the ministers and heads of the line departments have to admit they were unaware of the presidential policy change and pronouncements. This was the case recently when Foreign Secretary Yasay first denied that President Duterte had indicated that next month’s bilateral military exercises with the U.S. will be the first and last during his 6-year presidential term, and then, when made aware of this statement, had to admit no prior knowledge.

Worse, ministers have had to quickly disagree with presidential policy pronouncements that are inaccurate and potentially destabilising. Budget Secretary Diokno had to quickly and diplomatically correct President Duterte’s unfounded accusation that the US was actively undermining the value of the Philippine peso. The peso-dollar rate is presently at a seven-year low. In a similar manner, the Department of National Defense had to respond to President Duterte’s call for U.S. military advisors to be removed from Mindanao by first clarifying that they had received no formal order to implement this policy and then later that the advisors would not be removed.

The biggest and most worrying policy change under the new Duterte administration is not in the language used to describe the change or even their substance but rather in the unprocessed, personalised ways the policy changes themselves are made (and at times quickly unmade).

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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