Aso mustn't buckle on decentralization plan
A loss by default is the only way to describe Prime Minister Taro Aso's capitulation to those lawmakers acting on behalf of specific interest groups and bureaucrats with vested interests, both of whom oppose the decentralization of power.
The government recently formulated a road map for the reform of government branch offices as part of decentralization efforts. However, the road map failed to incorporate any concrete plans as to whether any branch offices would be eliminated or consolidated, while it shied away from any move to cut 35,000 central government officials at these offices. These matters have been put off until a decentralization reform outline scheduled to be compiled by the end of this year.
In its second package of recommendations submitted in December, the Decentralization Reform Committee proposed the abolition and consolidation of Construction and Transport Ministry regional development bureaus and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry regional agricultural administration offices. The committee of experts and others also recommended the operations and projects of these bodies be taken over by local municipalities.
Attention focused on the extent to which the government road map could incorporate the committee's recommendations as policy.
Aso has championed decentralization as a top priority for his Cabinet. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Kunio Hatoyama has resolved to knuckle down and start discussions with ministries that have bristled at the decentralization plan, even if it means "becoming their punching bag," he said.
However, no ministerial-level negotiations have been held, and the road map has been stripped of any hard-hitting content.
Tough times no excuse （英文翻訳抜け？）
Admittedly, this is a difficult time to be formulating such a road map.
With the economy tanking and the government being called on by all and sundry to take robust and quick economic and employment measures, moves to devolve power and staffers to local municipalities have screeched to a halt.
The weakening of Aso's leadership due to dismal approval ratings for the Cabinet also has given cover to lawmakers lobbying for the interests of specific groups and bureaucrats scrambling to protect their vested interests.
However, we think this excuse is unacceptable. Reforming government branch offices is a historic task that has been left untouched during the reorganization of central government ministries and agencies.
Many government branch offices are not closely supervised by the Diet and local assemblies or watched by residents. This lax oversight has given rise to a spate of scandals, such as wasteful spending of road-related tax revenues by construction ministry regional development bureaus, and poor supervision of rice tainted with pesticide or mold by the farm ministry's regional agricultural administration offices.
The transfer of government branch offices' work, officials and budgets earmarked for their projects to local municipalities will help revitalize regional areas and invigorate local economies, and streamline administrative duties by the central government and local municipalities by eliminating overlaps.
Key election issue
A sharing of roles, in which local municipalities basically handle regular work and projects during normal times and let the central government step in to deal swiftly with emergencies such as recession and major disasters, should have been discussed over the years.
Another loss by default on this matter would be inexcusable. The government should quickly start coordinating with relevant bodies so it can incorporate specific goals into its decentralization reform outline at the end of the year. The prime minister and the internal affairs and communications minister will need to exercise leadership should the going get tough during this process.
Decentralization will be a key issue during the next House of Representatives election campaign. The Democratic Party of Japan has trumpeted a radical policy to abolish and cut back government branch offices should it take office.
If the ruling parties postpone reform of government branch offices until after the lower house election, they would leave themselves open to accusations that their words contradict their actions. We hope the ruling coalition holds its nerve and puts up numerical targets concerning the shift of government branch offices' operations and projects to local municipalities, as well as in cuts to the number of central government officials working at these offices.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 31, 2009)