Author: Tobias Harris
Amidst all the changes introduced by the Hatoyama government since it took office in September, it is easy to forget what may be the most revolutionary change of all: transparent government.
The most visible example thus far is the Government Revitalization Unit’s (GRU) comprehensive review of government spending programs, ably chronicled by Michael Cucek here and here. As Cucek notes, for the first time bureaucrats are being forced to account for programs for which they are responsible — and in Cucek’s opinion, the bureaucrats’ responses have been notable mostly for their lack of enthusiasm. He concludes that ‘the GRU proceedings have reinforced the DPJ’s image as the party that cares about how tax revenues get spent.’
He may be understating the significance of what the Hatoyama government is doing.
One of the major themes of the DPJ’s 2009 election manifesto and earlier party documents was the importance of transparency and accountability for democracy. Simply put, Japanese democracy was rotten precisely because the authorities in Tokyo did not see fit to trust the public with information about how tax revenue was being spent and who was making national policy. Protected by a press that did not venture beyond press clubs in search of stories, stories that might reveal how policy emerged from opaque negotiations among bureaucrats and LDP fixers, LDP rule was shrouded in a cloud. As a result, public confidence eroded not just in the LDP but in Japan’s government more generally. It is little surprise that public opinion polls during the months leading up to the general election showed that voters were sceptical about the DPJ even if they were willing to vote for the party: after years of LDP rule, during which the only thing that was clear was that the government was failing the public, what reason did voters have to be confident that any group of politicians could follow through on its promises? After the devastation wrought by the LDP, scepticism (to the say the least) towards the political system was and is a healthy response.
But little by little the DPJ is chipping away at the years of much-merited cynicism and disgust that have emerged among the Japanese people. Publicizing the GRU’s hearings was an important first step. Opening up the press clubs could be another important step. The finance ministry’s decision to publicize the budget compilation process piece by piece should help too.
The savings secured by the GRU have thus far been small, totalling just over 1 trillion yen. But the GRU hearings could prove much more consequential for the government if they restore the public’s trust in the government, especially when it comes to spending taxpayer money. A Sankei/FNN poll found that the public is nearly unanimous in its support for the hearings. 88.7 per cent of respondents said that the hearings have been useful for eliminating administrative waste. 85.2 per cent said that the hearings should be held annually. Nearly 80 per cent said that they were interested in the contents of the hearings. Most extraordinarily, 77.5 per cent of self-declared LDP supporters said that they saw the hearings as useful.
I do not think that it is mere coincidence that a recent Yomiuri poll found that 61 per cent of respondents said that they view a consumption tax increase to raise revenue for social security as unavoidable. This is just a theory, but I wonder whether the Japanese public had a problem not with consumption tax increases but rather with consumption tax increases carried out by a ruling party with such a dismal record when it came to using the public’s money wisely. Why should the public have supported paying for money into coffers controlled by the spendthrift LDP? By taking its duties as the duly elected government of the people seriously in reviewing how public money is spent, it is conceivable that voters will be more understanding if and when a DPJ government seeks public approval for a tax increase, especially if it is explicit about how it will use the additional revenue.
Transparency is inextricably linked with accountability. By being open about how public money is spent, the DPJ will enable voters to assess how the government has performed come election time. This is central to the new policymaking system the DPJ is building today. The 1955 system was effectively premised on the idea that the LDP and therefore the government could take the time to craft a consensus, often working in secret and making various side payments to make it stick. Getting the distribution of benefits right was more important to the LDP than providing a full account of its activities to voters. The DPJ’s nascent system, on the other hand, is based on Westminster and implicitly recognizes that since the ruling party could lose in competitive elections, transparency is on average preferable as it enables the government to promote its achievements (while trying to spin away the failings). Without transparency, the ruling party cannot be held accountable by the public for its achievements. I recognize that the LDP did not build the 1955 system with these principles in mind — although I think that the DPJ’s leaders are thinking along these lines — but I think this stylized story is useful for thinking about how LDP rule functioned.
So while the DPJ may be conducting a sort of fiscal truth and reconciliation commission through the GRU — a useful political manoeuvre as the DPJ consolidates its power — the hearings are as much about the future as they are about the past.
And openness has as much to do with foreign policy as with fiscal policy. With Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya announcing that the government will proceed with unveiling the ‘secret’ agreement between the US and Japan that permitted the ‘introduction’ of US nuclear weapons into Japan despite the three non-nuclear principles prohibiting such actions, the push for open government also includes an indictment of how the LDP conducted the US-Japan alliance for decades. It could not be otherwise. For too long the US was happy to manage the alliance in the shadows and work with a host of unsavoury characters if doing so served the interests of the alliance. While the end of the cold war likely meant the end of the more sordid dimensions of US-Japan cooperation, the US government nevertheless continued to enjoy deep ties with an LDP that essentially governed behind a veil of secrecy. Just as the DPJ is seeking to air the truth of LDP rule at home, so too will it air the secrets of LDP rule in foreign policy, starting with the nuclear pact that has been an open secret for decades. The DPJ’s approach to the Indian Ocean refuelling mission and the 2006 Okinawa agreement on realignment similarly cannot be understood without reference to the DPJ’s emphasis on transparency.
Make no mistake: the DPJ is conducting a revolution in Japanese politics. It may not look like a revolution, because there are few guarantees that the DPJ will deliver sweeping policy changes, but it is important to recognize that a procedural revolution is still a revolution. And for the first time in decades the Japanese people may be able to trust their government to work on behalf of the public interest in full view of the public, so that they may be able to judge the government’s progress.