Is it time to create a Department for Maritime Affairs?

During the 120th Maritime Forum held at the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific where we were once again awed by the progress and development of that excellent institution founded by AMOSUP Chairman Capt Greg Oca and nurtured by its President, VADM Eduardo Ma R Santos, I asked the Forum to remember former Senator Leticia R Shahani, likewise an early member of the League and Forum, who recently died after a lingering illness.

I recalled Manang Letty as an indefatigable supporter of things maritime, aside from being a leader in the campaign for women’s rights, both locally and internationally.  I had seen her in action in the DFA, and in the Senate where she once chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

When I was often invited to appear before hearings on maritime affairs in the early ‘90s, I frequently heard Manang Letty bemoan our lack of political will to have a strong Navy. She continuously harped on the need to look at our archipelagic nature and harness our marine resources sustainably and develop the maritime industry to fulfill our destiny as a true maritime nation. I wondered who among the siblings, the late Senator or her older brother, former President Fidel V Ramos, pushed the other to be such an avid maritime supporter.

I recalled that when we both last appeared in the Senate Committee on National Defense in 2016 on the Scarborough Shoal issue, she again showed her disappointment over our lack of wherewithal to enable us to cope, in the light of the shoal’s being a traditional fishing ground of Pangasinenses and Zambaleños, among others. I would confirm these facts, having been involved in mariculture activities with Masinloc and San Antonio, Zambales folk and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) since 2006, and having talked to many Zambales fishermen rendered almost jobless as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy resulting from the Scarborough incident with the Philippine Navy in 2012.

She was also the author of the original baselines law, and asked me and two colleagues to assist her with technical details: the BCGS’s technocrat Mario C Manansala, who later became one of the permanent Philippine delegates to the UNCLOS meetings in Caracas and Capt. Tagumpay R Jardiniano, who would later be PN Flag Officer in Command.

Manang Letty filed one of the first bills relating to activation of a Department of Maritime Affairs in 1990 together with the late Sen Blas Ople. She was reacting to demands from many sectors not pleased with the existing bureaucracy in the maritime area. She had asked my comments on some of the issues, particularly with respect to maritime administration and law enforcement. Many other DMA bills in both Houses were also filed but failed to gain sufficient support.

Senate Bill 226, creating the Department of Maritime Affairs (DMA) was filed by Sen Antonio F Trillanes IV and has been pending since 2010. It also apparently lacked sufficient support from many sectors.

President Rodrigo R Duterte has given his nod to certain maritime groups to address maritime reform. No doubt, consolidation of functions and reduction of red tape are high on the agenda of the concerned sectors. This was in fact the thrust of the Maritime Forum at the onset of 2017, but we gave in to the other sectors because of the commitment to them by the President during a workshop in Davao in the last quarter of 2016.

In finalizing a draft DMA Law, we should bear in mind many basic principles of organization and management. This includes simplification of tasks, consolidation of functions, unity of purpose and command, enabling effectiveness and efficiency, etc. One means of testing organizations is looking outward, checking on what makes other similar organizations tick.

When Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau approved Minister Leo Cadieux”s proposed reorganization of the Canadian Armed Forces in the early ‘70s, many countries, including the United States, increased their Defense Attaché staff in Ontario to closely monitor developments. Even then BG Fidel V Ramos, who was Chief of Constabulary and the designated point man personally handpicked by AFP Chief of Staff Romeo C Espino to spearhead AFP organizational reform, was misled to thinking that the Canadian model was succeeding. We in the PN opposed it, even as I liked the idea of “Think AFP”, which was the Espino AFP’s buzzword. Espino’s bush jacket model was disliked by the Navy, primarily because it unilaterally removed the Navy shoulder board and in its place, installed a loop much like what airline pilots, customs inspectors and immigration officers wear.

A group we spontaneously formed to prepare a position paper eventually became official with the FOIC PN RAdm Hilario M Ruiz asking us to place his CNS, then Capt Jose G Lansangan to be the Chairman. The workhorses consisted of myself, LT Eriberto C Varona and LCdr Armando Q Madamba, and ended up as a book entitled, “AFP Organizational Issues” published in 1972 by the Group and printed by the AFP Mapping Center at Camp Aguinaldo. BG Mateo C Evangelista, DCSPLAN (J5) told me that Gen Romeo V Espino had read it and commented that he generally agreed with our position opposing the uniservice proposal.

Needless to say, the Canadian military model slowly changed. When I took the GSC course at RNC Greenwich, London in 1975, my two Canadian classmates emotionally delved on the poor result of the Canadian reorganization. But in reality, it was similar to various organizations already existing, forced by circumstances: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Japanese Self Defence Forces (JSDF) and in a way, our own AFP, which started from only the Philippine Army (PA) created by CA no. 1, which is really almost a uniservice. Ground Forces officers in fact had no specific Army or Navy affiliation as PC and PA officers had the combat arms and technical services as their branches, and could move from PA and PC at will, until the separation of lists in the late ‘60s. General and Flag Officers, however were free to cross service commands and a few of them had the opportunity to be service commanders of several major services, now no longer done.

So what do we have in the way of Maritime Affairs?

Former DOTC USEC Arturo Valdez early this month asked me to join him in a meeting with National Maritime Polytechnic Foundation Chairman (and founding Chairman, VACC) Dante Jimenez, his maritime-oriented sister and colleague Ms Merle J San Pedro and former IMO Regional Director for East Asia (and former MARINA Deputy Administrator) Brenda Pimentel to discuss this and I was asked precisely that question.

I said that we need to review all of those previous bills but more so, review what successful maritime countries have done. Unfortunately, there is no standard template but we can check out a few developing countries who have developed exactly that organization called “Department (or Ministry) of Maritime Affairs”.

The DOTC was almost exactly patterned after the US DOT, which has the Maritime Administration (MARAD), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US Coast Guard (currently attached to the Department of Homeland Security), the Federal Railway Administration (FRA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) (currently attached to the Department of Homeland Security), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the St Lawrence Seaway Commission (SLDC). In the UK, it is called Ministry of Communications. In spite of the seeming highly centralized authority in many countries, local governments run much of the port activities while the central government merely oversees safety standards.

Another major difference among various proposals is the inclusion of more maritime aspects beyond transportation. One country actually calls it Department of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, but whether fisheries is mentioned or not it can be encompassed, as fisheries is maritime in nature, together with all natural resources in the marine environment. I mentioned that in Norway, all ports started as fish ports, and thus, the Ministry of Fisheries run the ports (When I visited in1984 they still were; I have not checked the current organization).

How about mapping? Obviously it is reasonable that coastal and ocean mapping should be included, where it can be part of the Philippine Coast Guard (as in Indonesia and Japan), obviously because it is indeed part of the navigation function. This makes updating of navigational safety information such as obstructions, changes on the coastal landscape and navigational aids much easier to update.

Certainly, there is a turf war among various Departments, and many will oppose changes. We’ve seen this, in particular, concerning the merchant marine administration, where even now, media refers to “the need to have a single administration,” overlooking the fact that MARINA had been so designated about 5 years now.

In the past, I had been ambivalent about the DMA. I was betting on DOTC (now DOTR) to do a good job but instead, due to over-centralization introduced by the Arroyo and Aquino administrations, it resulted in more inefficiency and corruption particularly in the road, metro rail and communications sector. Likewise, the incidence of “dealer-driven” projects in infrastructure had resulted in ill designed, non-interoperable systems (e.g., two types of metro rail gauge, non-seamless toll operations, each project having different vehicles and maintenance contracts, etc). The Maritime Communications Project (MCP-1) of the ‘80s, completed in 1993-94, was one such example, which when completed, had equipment delivered and installed at PCG HQ and PPA head office that were not satisfactorily used. A more recent case (2009 or so): How did DOTC ever decide to have “modular ports” that did not involve the port authorities and the port users?

Nevertheless, we indeed could use a Department of Maritime Affairs, and I have committed my assistance in whatever way, first of all in ascertaining that we have the right motivation for it; secondly, in ensuring that we integrate the appropriate agencies for the most effective utilization of resources and implementation of tasks, and finally in giving each agency concerned the right functions, with the appropriate authority, responsibility and, most importantly, accountability that should not make it necessary to centralize decision making upwards, that would only result in confusion, spurious development, and corruption.

In other words, each bureau or agency should be given the marching orders that former President FVR used to give: “You just do a good job or I’ll fire you!”