Aso’s plan to split health ministry in trouble

by Masami Ito

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s plan to split the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in two has apparently failed amid protests from members of his Liberal Democratic Party, drawing his leadership ability into question once again.

In mid-May, Aso proposed splitting the ministry so that one half could deal with social security issues, such as pensions, medical treatment and nursing care for the elderly, and the other could tackle issues like employment and the declining birth rate.

He was expected to make the revamp a key pledge in the upcoming Lower House election.

But a core part of the reorganization plan combines jurisdiction for nurseries, currently controlled by the health ministry, with that of kindergartens, which are controlled by the education ministry. This triggered outrage among lawmakers with vested interests in education, including such heavyweights as former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura.

LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda said Friday that it was an issue that needed to be discussed thoroughly.

“If we split it just because it is huge, problems could surface between the two split entities,” Hosoda said. “This isn’t an issue that we need to decide on immediately. . . . We need to hammer out the details.”

The health ministry was established in 2001 by combining the Health and Welfare Ministry with the Labor Ministry as a part of a realignment of the government bureaucracy. The ministry’s budget for fiscal 2009 is enormous, topping ¥20 trillion, and Aso was hoping to enhance its performance by splitting it in two.

Aso, often been criticized for his flip-flopping on policy, was once again targeted for derision after attempting to emphasize that he never gave orders to divide the ministry in the first place.

“No one ever said anything about just taking the health ministry and dividing it immediately,” Aso argued Wednesday during the Upper House budget committee meeting. “What I said was why not consider reorganizing and strengthening ministries and agencies related to people’s lives, like the health ministry or the Cabinet Office, to ensure the public’s safety and security.”

Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Katsuya Okada said he was “aghast” at Aso’s sudden change of heart.

“A prime minister’s words are grave but Aso always retracts them easily,” Okada said. In this case, “Aso could not show an ounce of leadership because he was unable to coordinate with the lawmakers with vested interests.”

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura stressed that the government had not given up on the reorganization.