The primary task of the ongoing ordinary Diet session is to present a credible picture of future Japan, a blueprint for the structural reforms needed to rebuild the nation. Plenary debates were held in both houses of the Diet earlier last week, followed by committee-level debates during the rest of the week.
Those debates, which came on the heels of the policy speeches delivered in the previous week by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and three key Cabinet ministers, centered on corruption in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and in the civil service. Attention was focused on two recent scandals: the bribery case involving the KSD small-business association and the embezzlement of taxpayers’ money by a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat.
Both scandals, coming on top of a long list of corruption cases, have further eroded public confidence in politics, again highlighting the pressing need for clean politics. Mr. Mori came under heavy attack from the opposition, but he skirted hard questions, creating the impression that he is not serious about cleaning house. The Diet, of course, has many important bills to process, including the budget package. With public trust reaching its nadir, however, a full inquiry into the scandals is also essential.
During a Lower House debate, Yukio Hatoyama, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, criticized the prime minister sharply, saying “LDP politics is the root of structural corruption.” Mori offered a “sincere apology” for the KSD scandal but avoided a direct response to demands for testimony by the LDP lawmakers involved. He only said it is up to the Diet to decide whether to summon them as witnesses.
He should have spoken more clearly. Already one of the legislators at the center of the bribery scandal, Upper House member Masakuni Murakami, has expressed his willingness to testify under oath. Another legislator, former economics minister Fukushiro Nukaga, is reportedly also ready to testify, but not under oath. The Diet should seek sworn testimony in order to get to the truth. The LDP must not use evasion tactics.
During the debate, the head of the ruling New Komeito, Takenori Kanzaki, asserted that it is “the Diet’s duty to uncover the whole truth through testimony under oath.” In response, the prime minister said the politicians involved “should make their own efforts to clear up doubts.” The contrast between the two statements is disturbing. Mr. Mori may be well aware of the gravity of the KSD affair — which has exposed a network of collusive ties between politicians, bureaucrats and businesses — but he failed to convey a determination to fight corruption.
The same goes for his reaction to the embezzlement case. This is not an isolated problem involving a “possessed” bureaucrat. It is a potentially much broader issue that casts doubt over the billions of yen in secret funds that are annually set aside for diplomatic purposes in the Foreign Ministry and other government offices. These funds, given their nature, are not subject to normal audit. The money may be needed to oil the diplomatic machine, but there must be a tight mechanism that prevents misuse and other irregularities.
All in all, the prime minister’s replies to questions were essentially repetitions of what he had said in his policy speech. On the overridingly important issue of fiscal reform, Mr. Mori reiterated that “discussions will be continued with a view to fiscal structural reform in parallel to efforts to put the economy on a course of self-sustaining recovery.” The problems are daunting, but that is all the more reason why public understanding and support should be secured.
The people remain uncertain over what the future holds for them and their children, largely because there is no road map showing where the nation will go from here. In his policy address, the prime minister expressed his resolve to push reforms for the “rebirth of Japan.” During the plenary debates he should have fleshed out that vision. Had he spoken more specifically and in his own words, he would have at least alleviated the public’s sense of uncertainty.
Plenary debates are not extemporaneous. Representatives of the ruling and opposition parties, reading from prepared statements, ask questions of the prime minister and key Cabinet ministers. Answers are also made from written statements. There is no real verbal exchange. Under the existing arrangement, that may be unavoidable. But face-to-face exchanges have been conducted at the committee level, notably in the Budget Committee, which have been attended by all or most members of the Cabinet. Such debates should be conducted even more vigorously in the coming weeks.
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