Solberg: ‘It was time for changes’

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg cited a need for renewal and new ways of working as the primary reasons behind her decision to change the leadership of seven government ministries on Wednesday. “The time was ripe for changes,” Solberg said at a mid-morning press conference after King Harald V had formally approved her major personnel shift.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg gathered with her new ministers In sub-freezing temperatures outside the Royal Palace in Oslo on Wednesday. From left: Jon Georg Dale (agriculture), Lina Cathrine Hofstad Helleland (culture), Sylvi Listhaug (immigration), Solberg, Vidar Helgesen (climate and the environment), Elisabeth Aspaker (EU issues) and Per Sandberg (fisheries). PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Erna Solberg gathered with her new ministers In sub-freezing temperatures outside the Royal Palace in Oslo on Wednesday. From left: Jon Georg Dale (agriculture), Linda Cathrine Hofstad Helleland (culture), Sylvi Listhaug (immigration), Solberg, Vidar Helgesen (climate and the environment), Elisabeth Aspaker (EU issues), Per Sandberg (fisheries) and Anniken Hauglie (labour). PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Solberg stressed that, in her opinion, there was nothing wrong with the former make-up of her cabinet that had been stable for more than two years, since her Conservative Party and the Progress Party won the national election in 2013. “We will be changing the ways we work,” Solberg said, referring to the two years remaining in her government’s term. “We’ll be getting in younger and new forces.” She took time to thank each of her outgoing ministers, and highlighted their accomplishments.

The timing of her ministerial changes are directly tied, she said, to the need to address “the big jobs” ahead. Those jobs, Solberg said, include implementation of the new climate agreement struck in Paris last weekend, continuing the so-called “green shift” towards more climate- and environmentally laws and regulations, dealing with the influx of asylum seekers in Norway, creation of new jobs and preservation of the welfare state.

Tackled jobs and unemployment first
As Solberg ran through and explained her list of ministerial changes, she started, perhaps significantly, with the change at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Robert Eriksson of the Progress Party is being replaced by Anniken Hauglie of the Conservatives, who will now be in charge of dealing with rising unemployment and welfare benefits, an important area in the run-up to the 2017 elections. Solberg claimed Eriksson had succeeded in making many changes, for example at state welfare agency NAV and within labour law and pension reform. But “there was no place for him any longer,” Solberg said rather bluntly, because the Progress Party had received a new ministerial post and “we need to have balance within the government.” In other words, since her party won more votes in the last election, it deserves more seats in the government.

Immigration and integration next
She then went on to the most significant change, the creation of a new ministerial post that will consolidate responsibility for asylum, immigration and integration issues. That will include, not least, resettlement of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving in Norway, mostly from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. Those issues have been split between the justice ministry, which Solberg said had “become so big,” and the ministry for family and social equality, both of which have been run by top Progress Party politicians, traditionally the biggest immigration skeptics in Norway. Now immigration and, not least, integration policy will be led by the Progress Party’s Sylvi Listhaug, who just last week claimed on national TV that she questioned the “tyranny of goodness” that was unduly steering Norwegian society. Listhaug has also warned for years about Islamic extremists “who threaten Europe, while the (Norwegian) government sits with its wool cap pulled down over its head.” She went on at a party meeting in 2004 to say that “fundamentalists who hate our Norwegian system are coming here to exploit the limitless Norwegian naieveté.”

That prompted newspaper Aftenposten to comment that Solberg’s decision to now put Listhaug in charge of immigration and integration extremely daring. Members of Parliament have called Listhaug everything from audacious, relentless, ideologically firm and someone who loves conflict and debate. The post also puts the Progress Party squarely in charge of an area it has complained about for years, but it also must find common ground with the Conservatives and the government’s two support parties in Parliament, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. That will give Listhaug plenty of conflict and debate in her new job as Immigration and Integration Minister.

Fishnet thrown over Sandberg
Her party’s noisiest top politician, Per Sandberg from Nord-Trøndelag, was confirmed as Norway’s new fisheries minister. There had been speculation he would become the new immigration minister but that would have provoked the government’s support parties and many others. Now Sandberg may find himself tangled in a fishing net of new responsibilities that will keep him too busy to fire off his frequent salvos, which often have made him an enemy of his own government. Solberg said she will expect him to “be part of our broad government consensus” and claimed she looked forward to work with him, while he nodded from his front-row seat at the press conference. Solberg may have taken the classic advice from the old Godfather movie: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

Sandberg replaces the Conservatives’ Elisabeth Aspaker, who in turn will take over the ministerial job of dealing with European Union issues from the Conservatives’ Vidar Helgesen, who will take over as Norway’s new climate and environment minister. Helgesen, whom Solberg claimed has a large international network, will take over for Tine Sundtoft, who played a crucial role in achieving agreement at the UN climate summit in Paris just last weekend. “She said herself that she wanted to be relieved of her duties,” Solberg said in explaining Sundtoft’s surprise departure.

New culture and agriculture ministers
Finally, Conservative MP Linda Cathrine Hofstad Helleland, described by Solberg as “an energy bomb,” will take over as culture minister after Thorhild Widvey, “who agreed,” Solberg said, “that we shall build up the new generation” of top Conservative Party politicians. Included in that “new generation” is 31-year-old Jon Georg Dale of the Progress Party, who most recently has been a state secretary in the finance ministry under Progress Party leader Siv Jensen and now will succeed Listhaug as agriculture minister.

All the changes were to officially take effect at 1pm on Friday, and Solberg joked that all the new ministers could then soon take off for the Christmas holidays “and think about what they’ve done.” Government minister jobs in Norway are considered among the toughest and most demanding in the country, but Solberg and several political commentators claimed her new line-up was “all very experienced.” They were to start “working differently” at once.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund