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Editorial: Japan gov't must be held to account over vast pool of corona emergency money

The current regular Diet session is scheduled to end on June 17, and growing numbers within the Japanese government and ruling parties are demanding there be no extension to the proceedings.

However, the government's novel coronavirus pandemic response has a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people, so it goes without saying that it should be debated in the Diet, where the entire country can see and hear what is going on. Hastily ending the Diet session in the midst of this crisis seems designed solely to serve the interests of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As if in conjunction with this move, the government has included an unprecedented 10 trillion yen (about $92.86 billion) in reserve funding in its second fiscal 2020 supplementary budget draft. This enormous sum is earmarked for "coronavirus countermeasures," but how exactly it will be used will now be decided without Diet scrutiny. In other words, the government has apparently been given carte blanche to spend the money as it likes. This is deeply worrying.

When the coronavirus began to spread in Japan, many in the ruling parties were in favor of extending the regular Diet session very nearly to the start of the autumn extraordinary session, as it looked like the battle against the pandemic would be a long one. However, a slow response to the virus plus the debacle over a dodgy retirement extension for a senior prosecutor has seen public support for the Abe Cabinet plummet. It certainly appears that the administration is now looking to end the session on June 17 because spending any more time exposed to Diet debate would risk even greater blows to its popularity.

That 10 trillion yen in reserve funds makes up about 30% of the entire second supplementary budget draft. Ten trillion yen is also twice the annual budget for national defense. It is a basic principle of fiscal management in a democracy that spending be approved by the national legislature.

Of course, it is necessary in times of unexpected crisis to set aside reserve money to get the government response rolling quickly. Under Japan's Constitution, too, it is legal to spend in providing for unforeseen deficiencies and get Diet approval after the fact. However, even if the spending is then rejected, this rejection has no binding legal force, and implementation of the budget does not change. This makes the budget revision process the crucial step in monitoring where reserve funds are directed, and there ought to be limits on how they are used.

Suspicions are even beginning to surface that the government and ruling parties created the vast pool of coronavirus crisis money knowing that the regular Diet session would not be extended, and that it could avoid the autumn extraordinary Diet session. It certainly appears that the ruling coalition has calculated that abbreviating Diet deliberations will make it easier for it to use the money to check items off its wish-list.

To make sure there are at least some restraints, the Diet should now discuss to the most specific extent possible how the reserve funds are to be spent.

Furthermore, giving more emergency subsidies to local governments, and the flexibility for them to use them on local pandemic countermeasures, may be more effective than centralizing spending. Debate is also needed from this different perspective.

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