The speech was mostly a repeat of his speech last month to the DPJ convention following his uncontested reelection as DPJ president.
In contrast to Mr. Aso, he provided a series of detailed policies that the DPJ wants to see passed. The proposal to end special account budgets and redirect the money into the general fund, a much more radical plan to free up budget room than the LDP’s emphasis on “trimming waste.” His pitch for a DPJ-led government is rooted in the idea that political change is essential if Japan is to reverse the decline in the living standard of the Japanese people. In this sense, Mr. Ozawa is taking Koizumi Junichiro’s argument to its logical conclusion: if changing the LDP from within failed to bring structural change to Japan’s economy, then throwing the LDP out of power is the next step.
Of course, where Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Koizumi part ways is in how the Japanese economy should change. Mr. Ozawa reiterated the need to “build a new livelihood for the people.” Central to his plan is “fundamentally changing how tax revenue is spent,” which will in turn free funds for use in rebuilding a social safety net. The components of Mr. Ozawa’s plan for that safety net are (1) shifting full responsibility for paying pensions to the state, (2) a 26,000 yen monthly child allowance to families until a child leaves middle school, (3) making public high schools free and lowering fees for private high schools and universities, (4) banning dispatch labor contracts that are shorter than two months, (5) raising the national average minimum hourly wage by 1000 yen, (6) implementing the income compensation program for farmers and possibly fishermen, and (7) cutting taxes for small- and medium-sized businesses.
Jun Okumura looks at the DPJ’s budgetary figures and reckons that after three years the DPJ will not have enough revenue from the new sources it wants to tap to pay for its agenda, which only goes to show that changing how the government spends tax revenue is only a temporary fix. The budget deficit will not be fixed simply by shuffling revenue around. This scheme may simply postpone Japan’s fiscal day of reckoning.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa also offered his foreign policy vision. He first offered his support for the US-Japan alliance as a pillar of Japanese foreign policy, but argued that a strong alliance depends on an equal partnership. I have no argument with Mr. Ozawa on this point. Second, he emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with Japan’s neighbors, China and South Korea especially. Finally, he reiterated his argument that the UN is the second pillar of Japanese foreign policy alongside the US-Japan alliance. The LDP loves to criticize Mr. Ozawa for his “UN-centrism,” but I’m not sure that the Japanese people are all that upset with the UN or Mr. Ozawa’s emphasis on Japan’s contributions through the UN organization. Mr. Ozawa’s foreign policy proposal is, in short, the status quo — a stronger, more equal US-Japan alliance, closer relations with Japan’s neighbors, and international cooperation through the UN.
Arguably, Mr. Ozawa’s speech should reassure Japanese voters that the DPJ’s hand will be steady. Change, but not too much, and more as a result from tossing the LDP. As in Mr. Ozawa’s motto, change so as to remain the same. With Mr. Aso accepting the DPJ’s terms for debate, the next election increasingly looks to be a question of managerial competence. Which party can best deliver on the promise of remaking policy to ease public insecurities and set Japan down the right path for the future? The LDP thinks it can win this debate by harping on Mr. Ozawa’s personal flaws, but for that to work the public will have to view Mr. Ozawa’s failings as outweighing the collective failings of the LDP, past, present, and future. It’s also little wonder that Mr. Aso is now talking about delaying a general election and prioritizing economic stimulus legislation. This may be a feint, but it looks like a rational response to the news that the public will not automatically flock to the LDP simply because Mr. Aso is now the prime minister. His government has to deliver. Fortunately for the LDP, it has the help of a supermajority in the lower house.
As noted previously, the DPJ must tread carefully. It cannot simply say no. It must debate in good faith and attempt to put its personal stamp on any economic stimulus package. Mr. Aso wants a plan for the good of the nation? Good. Then force him to accept revisions that prevent him from taking sole credit for the plan, and hope that the LDP continues to provide examples of why it cannot be trusted with power. And argue that even if the LDP can get economic stimulus right, it has no plan for what to do next.
The stereotype of the DPJ as an unserious opposition party should be put to rest. The DPJ has a plan for governing. It may not be perfect, but it’s a plan, complete with details about spending. But the job of a political party isn’t to have a plan that’s perfect in every detail. It’s to have the right marriage of political vision and policy program. The DPJ increasingly has both, and both resonant with the voters. It will take more than calumny aimed at the “Ozawa DPJ” to chip away at the DPJ’s mounting support.