Opposition parties fail their duty

The contentious state secrets bill is about to be put to a Lower House vote after a set of amendments that retain its basic aim — to solidify the administrative branch’s supremacy over people through almost unlimited control of government information. The changes made it even clearer that the government plans to monopolize discretion to classify information on security, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and anti-terrorism as “special secrets” to be hidden from the public, and rejects any substantive oversight of the process by independent bodies.

The opposition parties that agreed to the amendments failed to perform their duty to check the ruling bloc led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. By accepting changes that do little to address grave concerns about the bill, they backed the LDP-led coalition’s bid to stage the appearance of a broad consensus in support of the controversial legislation.

Take the example of an amendment agreed on through talks between the ruling coalition and Your Party. The prime minister will be involved “from a third-party viewpoint” when heads of administrative bodies classify information and can seek explanation or call for changes if necessary. But how can the prime minister serve as an independent third party to the heads of administrative bodies — who in most cases are the very members of the Cabinet that he leads?

After talks with Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), the ruling coalition added a supplementary clause to the bill saying that the government would “consider” the creation of a new body to examine the classification standards “from an independent and fair position.” But no mention is being made of the body’s specific powers, the composition of its members or when it would be established — leaving it up in the air if it is ever going to be created.

The coalition, meanwhile, rebuffed a call by the Democratic Party of Japan for the creation of an independent body comprising members appointed by the Diet to oversee the classification process. Coalition lawmakers reportedly said that they cannot accept letting such an organ be in charge of overseeing administrative secrets. This clearly shows that the proponents of the bill are not seriously considering the idea of third-party oversight by people outside of the administrative branch — and that they are bent on keeping the whole process within the government’s exclusive domain.

Independent oversight is crucial to ensure that the government cannot use its powers to arbitrarily classify as special secrets information whose release would be inconvenient to it — which would unjustifiably limit the people’s right to know what their government is doing. It is indispensable that an independent third-party body have the power to screen information to determine whether it merits being classified as a special secret.

What Your Party and Nippon Ishin no Kai achieved were mostly cosmetic and nominal changes to the bill, and at least one change made the bill even worse. While the original government bill said that the classification of secrets can be extended beyond 30 years only with Cabinet approval, Nippon Ishin no Kai had called for the declassification of all designated secrets after 30 years. What the party got was an amendment that all secrets have to be declassified after 60 years except for information in seven special categories including vaguely-defined “important information to be defined by government ordinances.”

It seems as if Your Party and Nippon Ishin no Kai agreed to the amendments for the sake of appearing to be able to make deals with the LDP-led coalition. Nothing that they have achieved through the deals can justify supporting a bill that threatens to undermine the foundation of Japanese democracy.