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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan     

Career consul general, honorary consul

or a bold new initiative?

Uppermost issue

Having a Winnipeg-based Consul-General office run part-time by a volunteer honorary appointee or full-time by career personnel is one issue uppermost in the minds of our Filipino community as we gladly anticipate the forthcoming visit to Winnipeg of His Excellency Leslie B. Gatan, the Philippine Ambassador to Canada, come Victoria Day!

Accompanied by Consul Jesusa Paez, the Acting Head of the Consul-General office in Toronto, and selected staff, they arrive in Winnipeg on May 21 for a 3-day visit – the first to Manitoba for the Ambassador and the Consul – to meet with government officials, business leaders and members of the Filipino diaspora. While we could expect the focus to be on the thrust of the Philippine diplomatic mission in Canada, it provides our community with a unique opportunity (1) to hear first-hand from the Ambassador’s lips and, thereby better appreciate, the foreign policy thrusts of President Benigno S. Aquino III [President Aquino’s "Three Pillars of Foreign Policy” – ‘economic diplomacy, protection of the rights and welfare of Filipino overseas, and national security’ – were eloquently articulated by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario when he addressed the members of the diplomatic corps in Manila a year ago.]; and (2) to dialogue with them to help find consensus to the above-mentioned uppermost consular issue.

The scheduled ‘town hall’ meeting with the community on Day 1 of Ambassador Gatan’s and Acting Consul Head Paez’ arrival becomes a natural forum (1) to begin such a dialogue and (2) to hear how the diplomatic mission plans to engage the Filipino diaspora in its implementation of the President’s foreign policy pillars, and how the consular post has seen its outreach program meeting its stated objectives. The ‘town hall’ gathering at PCCM also provides a venue for voicing our community insights on the above-noted consular issue.

Regular consulate

My first impulse tells me that establishing a regular consulate in Winnipeg would be an ideal move, with many reasons to commend it: assurance of prompt consular services, daily identification with the new Philippine government – conducive to community dialogue, and recognition of our sizable local Filipino community.

Who would object to such a move? Imagine the easy access our local community would have to the full scope of consular services: the issuance of passports, travel documents, visas and balikbayan stamps; the extension of validity of green passports; consultation on requirements for retention and re-acquisition of Philippine citizenship; notarial and other legal services such as authentication of NBI applications; registration of nationals; reports of marriage, birth and death; and collection of income tax. But why only serve us in Manitoba via the outreach program from Toronto? What if we had an emergency need? All valid questions!

Yet, I ask, am I being realistic in my aspiration in light of the Philippines’ fiscal and financial situation? I know of many who would first like to know the likely budget needed for such a career consular office in Winnipeg. Based on a revenue forecast from anticipated fees ensuing from use of said consular services, would it be financially sustainable in the long term? What if the operation were revenue neutral – neither gain nor deficit? Would the amount needed to support such a Winnipeg consular office then become justifiable?

I sense most, if not all, would rather direct the funds to the necessities of Filipinos in the homeland – shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, and free medical care for the sick. Indeed, I confidently say that most of us, if not all, would rather risk doses of administrative inconvenience associated with meeting our consular needs and have the assurance that scarce government resources are directed appropriately. That’s what good public policy is. One truism to remember – it is more politically difficult to close even a deficit-run government office than not open one to begin with. Suggestions have already been made that the Toronto Consulate General office could enhance, if need be, its outreach program by creating a corps of volunteers, perhaps teamed with existing community organizations, and making more use of the Internet. The new Consul General would most certainly have fresh prescriptive ideas.

Honorary consulate office

There is virtually no cost to opening and maintaining an honorary consular office; formal arrangements could be entered with the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba as had been done with our first Honorary Consul General. Times were when we had not only a regular consular office in the ‘80s during the Marcos era but also subsequently an honorary Consulate General office throughout the ‘90s and early this millennium whose incumbent provided exemplary service and another Honorary Consul office until more recently. Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Montreal and St. John’s still have their incumbent honorary consuls. The much larger Manitoba Filipino community today have wondered when might they expect to hear news of one being appointed.

While interviews with applicants have been concluded – I applaud the volunteers who put forward their names – no appointment has been announced. Neither am I sure one would, could or should be made. While an honorary consulate is cheaper to open and sustain, still there is a palpable delay if not apparent reluctance to do so. Therefore, I have reasoned there may well be compelling non-budgetary issues such as: apprehension about creating false expectations of consular services that could be fully delegated; experience with unforeseen past disappointments; fear of unwittingly creating community dissension in light of the number of competing volunteer applicants; difficulty in assessing fully the critical attributes for success or maybe; it is simply no longer deemed as the most appropriate mechanism for delivering on the present government’s foreign policy mandate (including consular services) nor the best way to make most use of the many volunteers’ precious talents and varied experiences.

Whatever underlying reason exists, if non-action were to be the final answer or, alternatively, an appointment has already been made and only awaiting official reception by the Government of Canada, a definitive message to the community on the issue is best announced during the “town hall’ meeting, even to the effect of deferring that privilege to the new Consul General whose arrival to the post is imminent.

Bold proposal, new initiative

Working on the assumption that no definitive decision on the said issue has yet been made, this column wants to recapture the last two ideas just alluded to above and use them as a basis for an open proposal in the hope a bold new initiative could emerge:

  1. Create an honorary position (therefore, not to worry about budgetary restraints) with the appropriate descriptive new name.

  2. Give the new position clear and specific dual mandates – to help the diplomatic mission spread its “economic diplomacy” thrust and build on what the mission will have achieved during its Manitoba visit and to assist the consular post only with the services that can be duly fully delegated.

  3. Strike an advisory committee drawn from the Filipino community elders, youth and beyond for their expertise, experience and standing related to the first mandate, which would provide contacts for networking that would assist whoever is appointed to the new position;

  4. Clearly define the reporting structure according to established protocol to both the diplomatic mission and the consular post and, thereby, underscore the message that the twin functions are both of principal interests to the Philippine Government in its overall relation to Canada.

  5. Include such other additional terms of reference for clarity and transparency.

With this as a framework, the diplomatic mission could be assured of effectively harnessing the many volunteers’ precious talents and varied experiences whose rewards, I submit, would be a greater sense of self-fulfilment. Winnipeg may well serve as a testing ground for such a bold new initiative!

Retired, Dr. Rey Pagtakhan was a Professor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine, Member of Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and senior federal minister for Manitoba. He is widely published and lectured in Medicine and Politics and has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including the honorary Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science and thePhilippines’ Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award.

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