March 24, 2002 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)Liberal Democratic Party legislators with vested interests in the agricultural sector apparently are dissatisfied with a draft report completed Friday by a government panel examining the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) debacle.
They seem to be unhappy with being singled out as having interfered with the government's agriculture policy.
Government panel reports rarely raise the issue of the long-established collusion between LDP lawmakers and officials of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, even though the practice is openly flaunted within the central government offices.
The fact that the draft report--compiled by the investigation committee on BSE issues, a personal advisory body to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister and the health, labor and welfare minister--was critical of the cozy ties may trigger soul-searching of the relations between Diet members and central government bureaucrats, observers said. Meanwhile, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tsutomu Takebe seems to have been let off the hook. Many in the ruling coalition had been calling for him to give up his portfolio, but the report did not openly blame him for the ministry's mishandling of the BSE affair.
However, further action against him cannot be ruled out at this point, observers said.
Shortly after the contents of the draft report were revealed, a heavyweight in the LDP lawmakers group linked to the agricultural sector lashed out in anger at a meeting with senior Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry officials.
House of Representatives member Takami Eto, who is chairman of the LDP's Eto-Kamei faction--which has a great many legislators with vested interests in the agricultural sector--scolded the ministry officials, who were briefing him on the contents of the report Friday afternoon.
Eto was quoted as shouting: "What insolence! How dare you besmirch our honor! We're going to take you down in public!"
Eto apparently was enraged by passages in the draft report that drew links between the ministry's policymaking and some LDP members.
"LDP legislators linked to the agricultural sector have the biggest influence (over the ministry's policymaking)," the draft said. "These LDP lawmakers have consistently supported policy measures that favor producers (over consumers) and assisted in the ministry's efforts to win a (favorable) share of the budget."
It also contains a statement pointing out that the LDP lawmakers in question "exerted their influence--at every juncture, both openly and covertly--over all ministry decisions concerning the handling of the BSE debacle."
Nonetheless, apparently defying the conventional practice of laying the groundwork for the release of a draft, ministry officials in charge of the report reportedly made few behind-the-scenes efforts to obtain advance approval from the LDP group on the draft's contents before unveiling the report.
After the meeting with the ministry officials, Eto justified his position to reporters.
"At central government offices, bureau and section chiefs are assigned to their posts on temporary assignment, but I've been engaged in addressing agricultural issues for decades," Eto said. "If it's deemed wrong for politicians to express their views (on the shaping of policy), then central government bureaucrats would very likely begin to act in a self-righteous way."
Observers said the LDP legislators group was especially irritated at being labeled the villains in the draft.
In fact, the LDP group has a history not only of pursuing farmers' interests with the ministry, such as helping set favorable prices for agricultural produce, but also of helping the ministry obtain a large slice of the budget pie.
However, some members of the LDP group apparently have reflected upon this practice.
"I don't think we can deny that we've put the demands of producers first. We haven't really listened to what consumers have had to say," former Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshio Yatsu said.
The draft report was scathing about the way the ministry managed the crisis, evidently referring to what seem to be botched attempts to trace the source of BSE and to increase public confidence in domestic beef.
Nonetheless, it lay no blame on Takebe in connection with the ministry's failure to properly and promptly handle the debacle.
Therefore, the minister and LDP members close to him have openly ruled out the possibility he will step down from the ministerial post.
"The issue of how Mr. Takebe should decide on his course of action has been settled," said a senior member of the faction led by Taku Yamasaki to which Takebe belongs. "The prime minister apparently has no intention to replace him. Nor would Mr. Takebe be willing to resign."
Takebe himself flatly ruled out such a possibility in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.
"It's totally deplorable that my course of action has become a point at issue," Takebe said. "I'll make every effort to work out effective measures (to prevent the spread and recurrence of BSE)."
In early February, Takebe survived an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion at a lower house session. There were expectations at the time that Takebe would decide whether to resign around the time the panel released its findings.
However, attention on Takebe has been diverted by the scandals surrounding former LDP lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and Kiyomi Tsujimoto, head of the Social Democratic Party's policymaking organ.
However, some LDP members reportedly have been of the opinion that the Cabinet should be changed in time for an anticipated resignation by Takebe.
"The agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister should assume responsibility (for the ministry's mishandling of the BSE debacle) when a final report is released by the government panel," said a senior member of the LDP faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
It is likely that the issue of Takebe resigning may be revived when the final report on the panel's findings is published on April 2.
The main points of the Friday draft report are:
-- Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry officials involved in the BSE issue lacked the sense of urgency indispensable for crisis management. They made a grave error in not extending administrative guidelines in banning meat-and-bone meal.
-- The ministry has consistently protected producers while all but neglecting consumer rights.
-- LDP lawmakers with vested interests in the agriculture sector exerted their influence--at every juncture, both openly and covertly--over all ministry decisions concerning the handling of the BSE debacle.
-- The ministry should enact a fundamental law on food safety and thoroughly review all food-related laws.
-- The ministry should immediately establish an administrative organization in charge of ensuring food safety.