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Japanese minister’s shady deals cloud free trade talks with Australia

The Australian

Japanese minister’s shady deals cloud free trade talks with Australia

Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent

January 13, 2007

THE Japanese cabinet minister expected to play a critical role in free trade negotiations with Australia is in trouble for the second time in four months over shady political financing.

Agriculture Forests and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka’s funding organisation has been caught falsely reporting rental payments of Y142 million ($1.53 million) for offices the Government provides free.

The implication is that the funding groups behind Mr Matsuoka and four other Liberal Democratic Party ministers caught up in the scandal have been using the bogus rent payments as a cover for more questionable outlays.

Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki has already admitted part of the Y227 million rent payments reported by his group was used for dining and drinks.

However, Mr Ibuki suggested the entertainment was more in the nature of humble "bento box lunches" than the blowouts in private rooms of Tokyo ryotei restaurants that politicians traditionally lavish on their associates.

Like Mr Matsuoka, Mr Ibuki claims that he has done absolutely nothing improper, and he is refusing calls from editorial writers in Japan’s media and the Communist Party — whose Akahata newspaper uncovered the funding affair — for his resignation.

The ministers have been afforded some cover by the vagueness of the political fund control law on accounting for politicians’ expenditures.

But Mr Matsuoka is susceptible. His 16-year career in the Diet has been pockmarked by accusations of impropriety, and this is his second scrape since taking over the agriculture ministry in late September.

Within a week of his appointment by new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mr Matsuoka admitted failing to disclose a Y1million donation from a firm then under police investigation.

In Washington this week for trade talks, 61-year-old Mr Matusoka claimed all his group’s expenses were legitimately incurred. "There are no fictitious expenses or adding-on of other groups’ expenses," he said.

Australian trade officials are watching his progress with special care because of his role in the pending Japan-Australia free trade agreement negotiations.

From Canberra’s viewpoint, the FTA depends on better access for Australian farm goods to Japan’s excessively protected agricultural markets.

But the Japanese agriculture ministry is a traditional fortress of farm protectionism and LDP rural interests, and has enough influence to derail a negotiation it does not like.

Long before he joined the cabinet, Mr Matsuoka became the domestic farm lobby’s most forceful advocate and fixer.

Australian academic Aurelia George Mulgan recently devoted a book to him entitled Power and Pork — a Japanese political life.

But Australian diplomats in Tokyo insist Mr Matsuoka constructively supported an FTA negotiation that covered farm tariffs and quotas, despite fierce flak from the Japanese farm lobby and rural MPs.

Although the funding scandal is now embarrassing other senior government MPs, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan seems reluctant to pursue the issue.

The last widespread parliamentary scandal started over government MPs dodging pension fund payments, but ended by rebounding horribly on the DPJ, costing it a leader. One opposition MP is already implicated in the current funding stir.

However, Mr Abe cannot take the matter too lightly, with opinion polls showing most voters unfavourably compare him with his vigorous predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

He faces a mid-year upper house election that may destroy his leadership if it goes poorly for the ruling party.

There is a view that under him the LDP has reverted to pre-Koizumi type: timid reform policies compromised by sleazy backroom politics.

 source: The Australian