Political earthquake

January 27, 2010

In the whirlwind that led up to the end of 2009 I attended a lecture at Melbourne University given by Professor Arthur Stockwin of Oxford University on the recent political changes in Japan. He described the overthrow of the LDP (after 54 years in power) and the advent of the Hatoyama government as a political earthquake.

Being the cynic that I am, and knowing how politically similar the Australian political parties are, I was dubious that a change in political party would change the day-to-day workings of the Japanese government. However, Professor Stockwin’s talk soon turned my cynicism into surprised optimism. In only a few months Hatoyama has made significant changes in government spending. He has attempted to divert funds on a huge scale, cancelling construction of the Yamba Dam and the Kawabegawa Dam and suspending 143 other dam projects in order to put money into childcare and healthcare. Professor Stockwin desribed Hatoyama as ‘pursuing a radical approach with undiminished enthusiasm’.

However, all of this is merely scratching the surface. What appears to be Hatoyama’s underlying agenda is in fact a major restructuring of Japanese government. The Japanese government is based on the Westminster model but there is a significant difference – in England, MPs make the decisions which are then endorsed by government officials. In the Japanese model it is the other way around – the civil servants make the decisions which are then endorsed by the MPs. Hatoyama is attempting to abolish this practice. He is also tackling the monopoly of the press clubs as The New York Times discussed back in November. Whether he can change the system at such a fundamental level is a question many in Japan and in the international arena are waiting to find out.

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