SHARING his thoughts as he has them, without much of a filter to spare anyone’s feelings, has characterized President Rodrigo Duterte’s communication skills, a refreshing departure from the careful indirectness of most politicians. In recent weeks, however, his “unscripted” approach has raised concern over his policy inconsistency, with at least three significant reversals of his stand on issues noted so far.
One was the President’s cancellation of an order of 26,000 assault rifles from the US for the Philippine National Police, a decision that was more or less aligned with his antagonism toward all things American. He reversed that decision and allowed the sale to proceed, however, after the unexpected US presidential election of Republican Donald Trump, a guy toward whom Duterte seems to feel some affinity.
Another was his declaration that he would not honor the Philippines’ commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement, in which former President BS Aquino 3rd vowed that the country would reduce its carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030. The Philippines has not yet ratified the accord, and Duterte’s statements, which came about a month after his inauguration, suggested that it wouldn’t. However, last week, just in time for the beginning of the second phase of the global climate talks, Duterte reversed himself and said he would sign the agreement.
The third was his position that nuclear power – or more specifically, the long-dormant, never operated Bataan Nuclear Power Plant – was not necessary for the country, given the significant risks posed by the technology. Just a few days later, however, he changed his mind, informing Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi that he would authorize $1 billion to be spent to rehabilitate the BNPP and prepare it for operation.
We have always tried to maintain that it is much more important to consider the substance and the actions of the President, or for that matter, any public servant, than the exact words he uses or his manner in delivering them. These three decisions and reversals, however, merit an exception to that perspective. The President issued clear positions on three important issues, in effect establishing national policy, only to completely reverse each of them within a very short period of time.
Whether or not the first or second policy in each case was the better decision is less relevant here than the unfortunate fact that anyone needing to determine a course of action – investors, other governments, or agencies within this government – based on the government’s policy would not know which direction to go. Likewise, they have no way of knowing whether or not any future decisions are going to be upheld, or if they, too, are subject to change.
The uncertainty being created could slow the government’s development plans; potential investors in projects may be hesitant to move, fearing that a “change of mind” may later put them out of business. There are also serious political implications in terms of things such as foreign policy or peace negotiations if the perception that the President is indecisive or inconsistent grows.
President Duterte’s direct and plain-spoken manner is still more an asset to him and the country than a detriment, and we can be fairly confident he does not actually wish to create uncertainty, but perhaps he would benefit from a friendly reminder to help avoid confusion: Sometimes it is better not to say anything until all the pertinent facts are in hand and have been considered, and then say it just once.