Welcome to life in Japan’s emerging Westminster system, in which the job of backbenchers is — contrary to the argument made by Paul Scalise and Devin Stewart that a major problem with Japanese politics is backbenchers lacking policymaking resources (discussed here) — to show up and vote as the party, acting at the behest of the cabinet, requests.
Hirano’s remarks dovetail with Ozawa Ichiro’s unfolding plans to reform the mechanics of the Diet. Upon his return from Britain last month, Ozawa outlined plans to revise the Diet law to, among other things, prohibit testimony by bureaucrats so to strengthen debate among legislators. (This ban would also prevent officials of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau — a longtime Ozawa target — from appearing as witnesses in the Diet.) Ozawa also wants to trim the number of Diet committee members so that Diet members can focus on a specific policy area instead of dividing their time between multiple committees — and he wants cabinet and sub-cabinet officials to participate in committee deliberations so to clarify government policies for legislators.
Ozawa met with the secretaries general of the SDPJ and the PNP, the DPJ’s coalition partners last week to discuss his plans for revising the Diet law, although the SDPJ is skeptical of the need to revise the law and it seems unlikely that revising the law will figure highly on the Diet agenda for the forthcoming extraordinary session after Hirano met with Yamaoka Kenji, the DPJ’s Diet affairs chair, and suggested that the bill should be delayed until next year’s ordinary session.
Ozawa is otherwise working to consolidate control of the DPJ caucus and to exclude the ruling parties from the policymaking process. Concerns about Ozawa’s forging a dominant Ozawa faction out of the so-called “Ozawa children” seem to be giving way to complaints that Ozawa is consolidating his control of the DPJ and the Diet through more conventional means. Ozawa has announced the lineup of the new party executive, and is being criticized for streamlining the party leadership by folding up a number of deputy leadership posts and concentrating party in his hands and in the hands of Koshiishi Azuma, an upper house member who is not a longtime Ozawa loyalist but who has reportedly moved closer to Ozawa in recent years. (It is less than clear who is doing the criticizing: the conservative press or DPJ malcontents who would prefer to remain anonymous.) There is a greater number of upper house members among party members tapped for leadership posts, which may simply reflect the importance of the upper house for moving the government’s agenda. According to Mainichi, six of ten members of the party executive are upper house members. Ozawa was also less concerned about preserving balance among the DPJ’s different groups, and did not include party members from groups that have opposed him in the past, most notably Edano Yukio, a senior party member who was given neither a cabinet post nor a party leadership post.
Far from wanting to forge first-termers into a force capable of controlling the policy agenda, Ozawa does not want to see first-term DPJ members in Nagata-cho: Ozawa’s group for first-term members has been suspended, and Ozawa has commanded first-termers to focus on political activities in their own districts, telling them “the work of a freshman member is to win the next election.”
It is not only first-term DPJ members who have to fear Ozawa. At the meeting with his SDPJ and PNP counterparts last week, Ozawa flatly rejected an SDPJ request to convene a regular meeting among the governing parties to coordinate coalition parties, saying that it was for precisely that reason that the SDPJ’s Fukushima Mizuho and the PNP’s Kamei Shizuka were included the cabinet, rendering an extra-governmental meeting of secretaries general at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to cabinet government.
For all the concerns that surrounded Ozawa’s appointment as DPJ secretary-general, one month into the Hatoyama government it appears that many of them were overblown. As was becoming clear even before the government took power, Ozawa sees his job as ensuring that the ruling party and the Diet are not obstacles to the cabinet’s implementing its policy agenda. Ozawa has been largely silent — at least publicly — on policy questions and at every opportunity has stressed the importance of enhancing the cabinet’s ability to govern. Far from dictating terms to the government, Ozawa has thus far been nothing but loyal to the Hatoyama government. There is plenty of time for that to change, but sooner or later Ozawa critics who argued that Ozawa’s “army” of youngsters would be a DPJ version of the Tanaka faction will have to admit that they were mistaken about Ozawa’s intentions.
Ozawa’s role as the buckle linking cabinet to ruling party and Diet is critical, but ultimately he is working to strengthen the cabinet, not to undermine its power.