Embattled minister resigns his post

UPDATED: Audun Lysbakken, who’s been one of the government’s most high-profile young ministers and poised to take over the leadership of the Socialist Left Party (SV) this weekend, announced he was resigning his ministerial post on Monday. Lysbakken claimed he was “taking responsibility” for “mistakes made” at his ministry, which included conflicts of interest and a funding blunder that inappropriately favored young party members.

Audun Lysbakken after he resigned on Monday as Norway's government minister for family and equality issues, in the wake of conflicts of interest and a funding allocation controversy. PHOTO: NRK / Views and News

Lysbakken’s top position in Norwegian politics was immediately thrown in question, especially after he said he’d become aware of a history of funding rules violations within his ministry including some where he personally had conflicts of interest involving political friendships. He also is taking the fall for what’s widely been believed to be a mistake made by trusted assistants and friends within the ministry in charge of issues involving children, families, equality and integration. His state secretary Kirsti Bergstø, for example, was among those behind a decision to allocate NOK 154,000 (about USD 28,000) last fall to an organization called Jenteforsvar (literally, “girl defense”) but which in fact stemmed from SV’s youth organization SU. The allocation hadn’t been advertised in advance, meaning no one else had a chance to compete for the funds.

The mount of money itself is small in a ministerial budget of hundreds of millions of kroner, but the allocation defies proper political procedures in Norway and appears to be part of systematic rules violations. Moreover, the allocation to Jenteforsvar was made despite warnings from the ministry’s own bureaucrats, and Lysbakken has had a hard time clarifying his role in the matter. He was expected to be called into parliament for questioning, and had failed to produce e-mails and other documents tied to the issue that burst into the headlines just two weeks ago and now has brought down a government minister in record time.

Lysbakken, shown here while announcing his resignation, still hopes to be elected party leader and said he still, at the very least, is an elected Member of Parliament and "proud of that." He said he has no intention of disappearing from Norwegian politics. PHOTO: NRK / Views and News

He still had the support of his party’s outgoing veteran leader and fellow government minister Kristin Halvorsen and, even more importantly, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party, who had said he had full confidence in Lysbakken. But on Monday, Lysbakken said he was giving up his top government post with immediate effect and Stoltenberg said he “respected” Lysbakken’s decision.

Lysbakken told reporters his decision was based on an overall evaluation that involved what he called “weak routines” within the ministry, his inability to produce documents requested, and that he thinks his “handling of this case has been wrong.”

He also admitted that he’d been told which groups were seeking funds from a larger allocation for self-defense courses for women on October 31, and that SU was involved.

Lysbakken told reporters on Monday that “it’s natural for a leader to take responsibility for mistakes,” adding that “I think I’ll come out of this storm wiser and stronger than before.”  That suggests he will still stand for election as SV’s leader at its party convention this weekend, although he formally left that up for grabs, too. He had only just prevailed in an internal power struggle against party colleague Heikki Holmås for the party’s leadership when the funding allocation issue hit the media. Lysbakken said he has no intention of “walking off and disappearing” and said he also was prepared to meet in Parliament.

If he survives as party leader, it’s possible he’ll be named to head another ministry at a later date. Leaders of parties with government power almost always hold government ministerial posts, especially in a coalition government like the one Stoltenberg leads. On Monday afternoon, however, he was heading to the Royal Palace, to ask King Harald to formally relieve him of his current ministerial duties.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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