The first round of debate in the current extraordinary Diet session ended on Oct. 11 at the Lower House Budget Committee, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Cabinet members answered opposition questions over various issues.
It was the first meeting of the Budget Committee of either house in about half a year, too long a recess for the principal watchdog of the executive branch.
To restore the Diet’s ability to debate policy issues in a way that fulfills its mandate, the Abe administration needs to overcome its reluctance to disclose sensitive information and avoid head-on debate over politically delicate issues.
A total of 10 lawmakers representing a newly formed joint parliamentary group of opposition parties questioned Abe and other Cabinet members on various topics during the two-day Lower House Budget Committee session.
Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), opened the group’s questioning of the government by pressing for answers to issues related to the recently negotiated bilateral trade agreement between Japan and the United States, which Abe has touted as a “win-win” deal.
Tamaki focused on the question of whether Washington has really agreed to drop its threat to impose additional tariffs on cars imported from Japan.
Abe asserted that he and U.S. President Donald Trump “confirmed” this point, stressing such an agreement reached between the leaders of countries “carries extremely larger weight.” It was not a simple “verbal promise,” he added.
But Abe refused Tamaki’s demand that the records of his meeting with Trump be published. We find it hard to take Abe’s words at face value.
The joint opposition bloc then asked questions about revelations that Kansai Electric Power Co. executives received cash and other gifts from a former influential town official, now deceased, who was a local bigwig in a town where one of the utility’s nuclear power plants is located.
But the ruling camp rejected an opposition request for summoning the utility’s executives involved as unsworn witnesses to answer related questions at the Diet. The government stuck to its position that it should wait for the conclusion of an independent fact-finding committee to be set up by the utility.
As a result, deliberations at the committee failed to cast any new light on the gift-taking scandal.
By putting the onus to uncover the truth entirely on the company, the Abe administration is acting in an irresponsible manner.
True, Kansai Electric Power is a private-sector company. But the government has been deeply involved in promoting nuclear power generation under what is often described as “kokusaku min-ei” (a national policy promoted by the private sector).
The utility’s loss of credibility is affecting the administration’s plan to restart offline nuclear reactors.
The Diet has every reason to play a role in the efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal. The government should show a greater commitment to tackling any problems behind this scandal.
Unlike other Diet committees, which are dedicated to specific policy areas, the Budget Committees are platforms for debate on all kinds of policy issues with the entire Cabinet including the prime minister present.
But we cannot expect to hear debate with necessary depth unless the prime minister offers his own thoughts.
Another example of Abe’s tendency to avoid meaningful debate concerns the decision by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to cancel a state subsidy for the Aichi Triennale 2019, an art festival in Aichi Prefecture, which was marred by an acrimonious dispute over a politically sensitive exhibit.
Almost all Abe said about his response to the decision, which could threaten freedom of expression, is, “After the Agency of Cultural Affairs made the decision I was briefed on it.”
When he was urged to rethink the decision, Abe just said, “education minister (Koichi) Hagiuda’s answers (to related questions) represent the Cabinet’s views.”
When Kiyomi Tsujimoto, another lawmaker of the opposition grouping, asked him about his “mind-set” concerning Diet debate, Abe said he tries to offer answers that are “easy to understand” for the public and explain the government’s policies in a “humble and careful” manner.
Unless Abe matches his words with actions by fulfilling his responsibility to explain government policies and decisions, the Diet will only become increasingly more irrelevant.
We also have something to say to opposition parties. As one obvious benefit of forming a unified bloc, they managed to coordinate their questions in advance to avoid overlapping.
But their performance was less than satisfactory with regard to highlighting problems and flaws with the government’s policies and actions.
The Upper House Budget Committee session to be convened next week should produce some in-depth debate by building on deliberations at its Lower House counterpart so that the Diet can carry out its public mandate.