As the second half of this year’s regular Diet session has gotten under way, one big question concerning stalled Diet reform is facing all lawmakers of this nation.
What should be done to restore healthy tensions between the legislative and executive branches of the government and revitalize deliberations on the Diet floor?
No party would dispute the need to revamp the Diet. But the conversation over the issue quickly gets stuck in a deadlock as soon as it turns to specifics.
What concrete actions should be taken first to start the process of fixing problems with the Diet?
In July last year, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers for achieving Lower House reform by the end of the Heisei Era (1989-2019), which ended in April, announced a set of proposals.
It called for three key measures: regular and nighttime Diet debates between the ruling and opposition party leaders; expanded use of information technology including the introduction of tablet computers; and allowing female lawmakers to vote by proxy when they are pregnant or having a baby.
While the Heisei Era ended without any significant progress on the issue, the group’s proposals are worth more than being shelved.
The Diet should start by carrying out the proposal concerning party head debates.
The system to hold one-on-one debates on the Diet floor between the chiefs of the ruling and opposition parties has fallen into a miserable state in recent years. None was held in 2017 and only twice last year, in May and June.
The event has yet to take place during the current Diet session.
Verbal battles between party chiefs over policy issues offer great opportunities for the public to evaluate their political and other capabilities and caliber while learning more about the political tenets and policies of the parties.
One such event before the scheduled summer Upper House election would help voters make their decisions at the polls.
The biggest obstacle to injecting life and vigor into this system is the agreement between both camps to avoid holding such debates in weeks when the prime minister, the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, attends Lower House plenary or committee sessions.
This arrangement is actually convenient for both sides. While the ruling party wants to limit the prime minister’s exposure to the risk of making costly mistakes, the opposition parties tend to prefer Budget Committee sessions, which give them more time to question the prime minister than such debates.
In May 2018, Yukio Edano, chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), said the current form of party head debates has outlived its historical importance.
Edano actually criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for undermining the relevance of such debates by too frequently orating at length only on what he wants to talk about without giving honest and straightforward answers to questions.
But the dismal state of the system is no rationale for allowing it to die a gradual death.
Five years ago, the top ruling and opposition party members in charge of Diet affairs signed an agreement to implement a package of measures to improve Diet deliberations, including holding party head debates once every month.
This agreement should be honored, at the very least.
But a real fix requires additional measures. The current system of party head debates, which is modeled on the British parliament’s “Question Time,” is basically designed for the Anglo-Saxon-style two-party system and not necessarily suitable for the political situation in Japan.
The CDP has made proposals to improve the system, including extension of the session from the current 45 minutes to two hours. The Japanese Communist Party is demanding that rules that effectively exclude minor parties from the opportunity be changed.
The ruling and opposition camps agreed on May 8 to set up a forum for discussions on this issue. One idea, holding the debates during nighttime to make it easier for the public to watch live TV broadcasts of the event, could be implemented immediately only if the Diet makes the decision.
With the political landscape shaped by Abe’s overwhelming political power, it is urgent to beef up the Diet’s ability to monitor the government’s actions.
The ruling and opposition parties are equally responsible for tackling this challenge.
One step toward improving the party head debate program would open up the prospect for the next.
This political imperative is testing the Diet’s commitment to bettering its performance.