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Editorial: Abe’s cavalier attitude is killing Diet’s watchdog role over power

  • December 11, 2018
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 01:10 p.m.
  • English Press

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, which is supported by a dominant ruling coalition, again exhibited disturbingly high-handed behavior during the Diet session that ended on Dec. 10.

 

It was the first extraordinary Diet session after Abe was re-elected as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for a third term. Even more than before, the administration acted in an arrogant, self-righteous manner, showing a cavalier disregard for the value of Diet debate on important policy issues and treating the legislature as if it were the government’s subcontractor.

 

POLITICAL SCHEDULE PUT BEFORE CAREFUL DEBATE

 

During this year’s ordinary Diet session, which ended in July, the legislature failed to properly perform its function as the watchdog of power in the face of political scandals that engulfed the government, including those involving two school operators directly or indirectly linked to Abe–Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution.

 

Despite an unusual statement calling on the Diet to “do serious soul-searching” on its poor performance and take steps for “improvement” issued by Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima after the regular session, things have gotten even worse, rather than better. The blame for the situation lies with Abe and the ruling coalition.

 

The enacted revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to allow more foreign nationals to work in Japan is a major policy change with huge implications for the future of Japanese society. This policy initiative requires a broad public consensus, but the government and ruling camp showed no intention to make serious efforts to win the support of opposition parties.

 

The government was reluctant to provide the Diet with information about foreign nationals working in Japan under the existing Technical Intern Training Program system, which was crucial for debate on the bill to revise the law.

 

The administration said details of the new system will be worked out later and included in government ordinances after the bill is enacted. When asked about these specifics, the administration only repeated it was still working on them.

 

With an eye to putting the revision into effect in April next year, the administration was bent on passing the bill during the short 48-day session at the expense of careful deliberations on the proposal. To shorten the process, the ruling parties even gave up part of the time for questioning allotted to them.

 

This policy change raises a wide range of issues and clearly requires the involvement of the entire government. But Abe failed to play the central role in Diet debate on the bill and instead left the task of answering related questions to the justice minister.

 

What was surprising is Abe’s response when he was asked to express his views about the government’s data showing that a total of 69 foreign technical trainees died in the past three years due to such causes as freezing, drowning and suicide.

 

“I have not heard (about these facts) before,” he said. “I cannot possibly answer.”

 

His reply seems to indicate a lack of awareness of his duty to ensure that foreign workers will receive humane treatment.

 

The administration also forcibly pushed another important piece of legislation–one to revise the waterworks law–through the Diet without trying seriously to address concerns and issues raised through deliberations.

 

The administration’s heavy-handed approach was also displayed in its decision to begin delayed land reclamation work in Henoko in the Okinawan city of Nago to build a new U.S. military base to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the face of strong opposition from Okinawa Prefecture. This attitude is totally unacceptable.

 

LITTLE HOPE FOR REGAINING PUBLIC TRUST

 

In the LDP presidential election in September, Abe faced harsh criticism about his leadership from local party members and supporters. But that does not appear to have forced him to change his political approach.

 

Many Japanese remain unconvinced of Abe’s explanations about allegations concerning the Moritomo and Kake scandals. But no progress toward uncovering the truth was made during the latest Diet session.

 

Part of the reason was probably that these scandals were not among the main topics. But Abe has a duty to offer more convincing answers to related issues in order to restore public trust in politics.

 

To make matters worse, some Cabinet members made remarks that only eroded further public trust in politics.

 

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, who has remained in the position without taking political responsibility for the Finance Ministry’s involvement in the falsification of some important official documents, is showing no signs of breaking the habit of making controversial remarks.

 

Quoting his friend who said it was “stupid” to help pay for the medical costs to treat people who have become ill because of unhealthy practices, Aso said the person had made a good point.

 

Aso’s comment reflects a lack of understanding about the basics of the public health care insurance program, which is based on the principle that medical costs should be widely shared by people including the healthy.

 

Satsuki Katayama, the state minister in charge of regional revitalization, was allegedly paid to use her political influence to help a business owner with his company’s tax returns and revised her political funding reports as many as four times in just two months.

 

Cybersecurity and Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada told the Diet he had never used a computer in his life, though he is responsible for overseeing cybersecurity preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. His surprising confession was widely reported by foreign media.

 

These remarks and revelations concerning members of Abe’s Cabinet forced the Diet to spend much time questioning their qualifications to serve their posts. Abe should be held severely responsible for his questionable appointments.

 

NO PROGRESS IN AMENDING CONSTITUTION

 

The Abe administration showed no commitment to tackling tough but vital policy challenges that have long been eschewed, such as reform of the social security system and fiscal rehabilitation.

 

It decided early to avoid any serious debate on the balance between the burdens and benefits under the social security system.

 

Instead, the administration made a raft of proposals to mitigate economic damage from the scheduled consumption tax rate hike next year, which is clearly aimed mainly at garnering votes in next summer’s Upper House election.

 

One proposed measure would reward cashless payments for purchases with a special return in points that purchases normally generate, which would, in principle, be more than the extra tax paid. Another would issue “premium vouchers” to help cushion the financial impact of the tax hike on certain households.

 

The administration’s failure to promote bipartisan cooperation has caused a serious delay in Diet debate on constitutional amendments, which are among Abe’s top policy priorities. Abe has only himself to blame for the situation.

 

The ruling coalition violated a parliamentary convention when it got the chairman of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution to convene a session without a bipartisan agreement to do so.

 

The move provoked a fierce backlash from some opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. This precluded substantial debate on constitutional amendments during the session.

 

Abe wanted the LDP’s four-point proposal to amend the Constitution, including a revision to Article 9 to codify the constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces, to be presented to the commission during this session as a first step in the process of initiating an amendment. But his plan was thwarted.

 

It is difficult to claim that there is solid and mature public consensus on a constitutional amendment, and there are many other policy issues that should be addressed first.

 

Next year’s political schedule is packed with important events, including unified local elections, the Upper House poll and imperial succession.

 

Debate on constitutional amendments has been driven by the wishes of the prime minister and the LDP. But the ruling camp should stop for a cool-headed reassessment of their amendment campaign.

 

The end of this month will mark the sixth anniversary of the start of Abe’s second tenure as prime minister.

 

The Abe administration should not be allowed to keep behaving in a way that damages the foundation of democracy without addressing public concerns about its arrogance stemming from its lengthy grip on power, which has generated many evil effects on the health of this nation’s democracy.

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