Once again showing that whatever the DPJ-led government’s shortcomings, it is entirely serious about centralizing policymaking in the cabinet and neutering the ruling party, both Hatoyama and Ozawa were quick to reject the proposal.
That these backbenchers felt compelled to petition the government for some sort of policy role is a good sign that the Hatoyama government’s efforts to change the policymaking process — at least as the ruling party is concerned — are working. Backbenchers, after all, have the most to lose from the shift to the Westminster model. Whereas under LDP rule a fourth-term Diet member like Ubukata could be aspiring to posts in the policy research council that would give him a stake in policymaking, both mid-career and first-term DPJ members have little to do but show up to vote for legislation and go home to their districts to campaign. Unlike LDP backbenchers, there are few channels for them even to try to intervene in order to direct pork-barrel spending to their districts. To a certain extent, their fates as politicians rest in the hands of a government over which they have little or no leverage.
And so it should remain. If the Hatoyama government is to fix any of the problems facing Japan, it will have to be able to formulate policy without having to worry about backbenchers working behind the cabinet’s back to develop and advance their own policies. Creating a new policymaking outfit in the party would also give bureaucrats opposed to the government an outlet to leak information that could undermine the cabinet, playing divide and rule among the politicians. And given the Hatoyama cabinet’s struggle to keep ministers on message, a DPJ policy shop could only muddle matters further.
Perhaps one day the DPJ might find it useful to create a party think tank that would keep backbenchers occupied and explore new ideas. But for now the new policymaking process is too fragile and restoring a policy role to the party will simply invite trouble.