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In a policy speech at the opening of this year’s regular Diet session on Wednesday, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori took great pains to win over a skeptical public. It was his first formal address to the Parliament since he took office last April. It was also the third longest such speech ever, perhaps reflecting Mr. Mori’s desire to deliver a defining message to the nation at the dawn of the 21st century.

The speech fell far short of expectations, however. Instead of looking squarely at reality, it tried to gloss over problems. Its exceptional length notwithstanding, it left key questions unanswered. The public remains as alienated as ever from the Mori administration. There is a deep sense of frustration over the government’s seeming inability to address pressing priorities.

First, the speech showed a lack of determination to root out political corruption. To be sure, the prime minister referred to the KSD bribery scandal, which involves illicit ties between politicians and a small-business organization, and to the embezzlement of a large sum of money from a secret diplomatic fund by a Foreign Ministry official. But his statements were halfhearted; they conveyed no sense of crisis, no resolve to get to the truth. He called the scandals “extremely regrettable” but went no further; it was as if he considered the incidents merely personal transgressions.

The fact is that these money scandals stem largely from the corruption-prone structure of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The prime minister said nothing about his responsibility for having appointed a Cabinet minister with questionable ties to the KSD. His superficial and detached attitude seemed to betray a mentality far removed from public sentiment on the matter. One lesson from past corruption scandals is that an administration that makes light of political ethics is doomed to collapse. In fact, money politics has forced more than a few LDP Cabinets to resign.

Mr. Mori also fell short when it came to other major issues left over from the last decade, such as deficit reduction and social-security reform. He discussed these and other concerns in detail but stopped short of presenting long-term prescriptions. No doubt budget reform is a top priority, but pledging only to “pursue discussions” — repeating much the same thing that he said in his speech to last autumn’s extraordinary Diet session — is not going to inspire public confidence. The same goes for his statement on revamping the social-security system.

The prime minister rightly stressed the need for economic recovery, but if he believes the public is looking only for faster growth, he is wrong. The people are also concerned about a free-spending fiscal policy that keeps pumping money into the system in the name of economic stimulation. They worry not only about the present but about the future as well: They are concerned that future generations will suffer unless prompt and effective action is taken to defuse the debt bomb.

It may be difficult to rewrite the fiscal 2001 government budget, which is now before the Diet. Even so, the prime minister should have at least mentioned the urgent need for fiscal reform or, better still, presented a road map for reform. In other words, he should have prepared the public for the pain it will have to accept if the nation’s fiscal house is to be put in order. Talking up stimulus measures as a way of winning July’s Upper House election may be politically sensible, but from the long-term perspective of structural reform it is both mistaken and irresponsible.

The prime minister, looking ahead to the first decade of this century, said the current 150-day parliamentary session should set the stage for national revival. He called it a “Diet of reform for the rebirth of Japan.” That is an apt description. It is worrying, however, that in focusing on the future he seems to be trying to avoid looking at the negative legacies from the “lost decade” of the 1990s, a decade of economic stagnation that depressed the lives of so many people.

In concluding, Mr. Mori urged the nation to “overcome difficulty and pain in order to break free of the old shell that envelops us and spread our wings and soar high.” That is a veiled warning that the people will have to bear higher tax and social-security burdens. Absent more specifics, however, the appeal rings hollow.

The Diet opened on the heels of a major government reorganization designed to put politicians, not bureaucrats, in charge of running the country. In particular, the new Cabinet Office, the nerve center of the restructured government, is designed to bolster the prime minister’s leadership. But the policy speech, for all its high-sounding rhetoric, exuded no genuine enthusiasm for reform. No wonder it failed to move the people.

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