A terrible idea from DPJ backbenchers, quickly nixed

On Wednesday Ubukata Yukio, the deputy secretary-general, Tanaka Makiko, Koizumi Junichiro’s controversial foreign minister who joined the DPJ last year, and other DPJ Diet members proposed to Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichiro that the party establish a new policy research arm to replace the policy research council that closed shop when the DPJ took power in September.

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.

3 thoughts on “A terrible idea from DPJ backbenchers, quickly nixed

  1. Mr. Harris – Could you give me some idea what your criteria is for a \”backbencher\” in the DPJ? A number of the persons involved in this joint petition are DPJ members of long standing or persons with significant political experience (e.g. Tanaka Makiko). I am also wondering about your positive assessment of the squelching of this nascent movement. A number of the petitioners entered politics after significant careers in the private sector. It is not unreasonable that those who entered politics with a goal of changing it would feel upset at being unable to contribute their expertise to the DPJ's policy formulation process.


  2. Mr. Cucek -My understanding is that a backbencher is any member of a ruling party not in a senior or junior cabinet post. Naturally the challenge of cabinet formation is ensuring that as many long-standing and/or experienced members (and potential troublemakers) are given important posts.I don't disagree that they need some way of being relevant, but a new institution within the party could be trouble, at least for now.


  3. I would like to add a bit of my own concern to Mr Cucek's words here. I have been for quite a while an avid follower of your blog, Mr Harris, and your message about the DPJ's desire to trigger a paradigm shift in Japanese governance consistently shines through.I am worried about though their ability to actually create and implement policy of their own. I particularly focus on climate policy in my work and i do not see much work being done in that field yet, except endless rehashing of the -25% target. (Pace Ozawa Sakahito, i have not yet read my print-out of what MOE has produced last Friday, but i am already worried when the kosshi is one page long and comes in colours.) I am starting to root for the Keidanren's voice being heard – on climate they may be the most conservative bunch this side of Senator Inhofe's constituency, but at least they are asking for a concrete road map….Which is something that the DPJ does not seem to be delivering. I have by no means gone through the CV of even one DPJ Diet member, but one hears about civil servants who have decided to go into politics and about the private sector folks Mr Cucek is speaking about, but one sees very little of their impact – at least in my narrow field. All the DPJ hobnobs are great \”big picture\” people, but any boat made up of only girders and bulkheads will sink if it does not have the nuts and bolts to keep it together. Any body within the party that would allow the formulation and articulation of policy would surely be a good thing. Why not simply isolate it from the nefarious bureaucracy and see where it goes? In my mind this would produce better outcomes than merely stumbling from one nebulous rhetorical gimmick to another…


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