Friday, January 11, 2008

On Ombudsmen and Portfolios

There's been a long string of food safety and other consumer scandals here lately - enough that the "kanji of the year" became "偽" (nise), "deception" (with the runner up "食" (shoku) food, and third place "嘘" (uso) lie - you know, just to ram it home properly). This issue hasn't gone unnoticed in political circles, so recently the opposition party DPJ proposed the establishment of an Ombudsman for "consumer affairs". Observing Japan (good blog - read it) just posted that the LDP government now is counter-proposing a ministerial portfolio for "consumer affairs". This shows a significant difference of opinion on what "consumer affairs" is, exactly; or, in any case, shows the appearance of such.

Background

A bit of political background: here we have the perpetually-in-power conservative party LDP. It is a fairly loose organization with a number of internal factions ranging from somewhat liberal to the blackest of nationalistic reactionaries. LDP is currently, with the aid of New Komeito (a small Buddhist party), in power of the all-important lower house. The main opposition party is the DPJ, which is a loose conservative party with factions ranging from liberal to pretty scarily conservative. LDP got trounced in the upper house election last year (as did New Komeito) over the slapstick-tragedy handling of lost pension accounts, so DPJ now has control over the upper house, and if there is a general election for the lower house anytime soon, LDP looks pretty likely to lose power there as well (for only the second time ever).

The actual differences between LDP and DPJ are small by most standards - on most issues the difference between the parties are a lot smaller than the difference of views of factions within each party. Which party is in control is thus not going to make much of a difference in the actual governance of the country; instead, voting is mostly about approval of the current government rather than about any choice of political direction (direction is chosen by internal faction politics, not public elections). As a consequence, framing issues in terms of government performance become all-important for both parties.

Proposals

"Ombudsman" is a Swedish word - one of the very few entering the international vocabulary in current times. It means "representative", and is originally specifically a person or office tasked with representing the public against the government, especially regarding government or institutional abuse of powers. As such, an ombudsman's office is set to be independent of the government or organization it oversees and has powers (sometimes far-reaching powers) to collect information, get access to officials, aid citizens in court cases and take cases to court themselves.

Advocating a ministerial portfolio for consumer affairs effectively argues that the problem is a lack of regulation or oversight. "Consumer affairs" is in this view about dishonest producers, cheating merchants and lack of quality control. Reasonable enough - many of the scandals have been about inappropriate or mislabeled ingredients, expiration date cheating or outright lying to consumers. In this - the LDP - view, the task is to tighten regulations and increase controls so that dishonest businesses won't get away with it, harming the honest merchants in the process. It is a matter of confidence in the industry and making sure that some bad eggs (sic) don't ruin it.

Advocating for an Ombudsman like DPJ does, on the other hand, is effectively saying that "consumer affairs" is a problem with the government and the state and regional bureaucracies; that they are taking sides for producers, manufacturers and other businesses, short-changing the consumer. In this view, errant companies defrauding consumers is not the actual problem but an effect of a regulatory and legal system set up for the benefit of business rather than consumers (and when you look at current and historical events, this frankly seems a rather more accurate view than the alternative "bad eggs" view above).

So here we at have a real, substantive policy difference between these two parties. Either the government is not doing enough policing and needs to do more to combat consumer fraud and cheating; or the government has a damaging pro-business-only outlook that facilitates abuse and has to shift towards a focus on consumer rights.

Except, I can't stop wondering - is it really a coincidence that the party who holds power advocates a solution that exonerates the government while increasing its reach, while the party that does not proposes a solution that blames bad governance and seeks to regulate it? The cynic in me believes that had the roles been reversed, so would the solutions. And it rather strongly suspects that neither suggestion was made with any intention of actually implementing them and any result will be a toothless, purely symbolic one good enough to generate a quick ten seconds on the news.

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