Members of Parliament (MPs) who initially voted in favour of a proposed doubling of their severance pay benefits have been so embarrassed by public reaction that they and all the political parties involved are reversing their positions. Things got worse when a Labour Party spokesman refused to answer questions about it during a live radio broadcast.
The Labour Party was especially embarrassed after having voted in favour of a measure that would extend severance pay and benefits from 12 to 24 months for MPs who fail to find new jobs after leaving Parliament. That gave the proposal majority support, since the Parliament’s other large party that currently leads the government, the Conservatives, had voted against it. In an unusual political alliance, the Conservatives, the Socialist Left party (SV) and the Greens party (MDG) had opposed extending pay and benefits for former MPs, on the grounds they don’t think MPs should be treated any differently or better than others in Norway who lose their jobs.
Labour, its potential government coalition partner the Center Party and the Conservatives’ current goverment partners (the Progress Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats) all voted in favour. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre even defended his party’s support for the measure at his end-of-year press conference early last week, claiming that MPs would be able to apply for two full years of severance pay only in special cases.
When confronted with immediate criticism that Labour and the other parties had instead voted for a measure that would leave them far better off than the vast majority of Norwegians, especially at a time of relatively high unemployment in Norway, they all started changing their minds. Labour called an extraordinary meeting of its own MPs to discuss the matter further, and they quickly shifted into reverse.
“We have never wanted a change in the rules that MPs be treated like other employees,” Støre told news bureau NTB in what many described as a feeble excuse for having voted for such a change anyway. Støre admitted that the “strong reaction” against his party’s MPs and others had made an impression.
Among those reacting was Arve Kambe, an MP for the Conservatives from Rogaland County, which has suffered the highest levels of job losses because of the downturn in the oil industry. Kambe went so far as to demand that the Labour Party should apologize to all those who have lost jobs without such lucrative severance protection. Støre and other politicians were clearly taken aback after they were caught pushing through a measure that potentially protected themselves from the political risks inherent in their jobs.
“We thought this was a measure that reflected those outside the Parliament,” claimed Trine Skei Grande, in explaining why her Liberals party also had initially backed the measure. The Center Party’s Geir Pollestad admitted the matter had not been “well enough anchored” in its parliamentary group, which would reverse its position as well, but then he put the blame on how the measure was presented by the Parliament’s administration. The Christian Democrats changed their minds, too, after realizing that MPs’ proposed ability to qualify for two years of severance pay could become routine and not just an exception to the current one-year rule.
‘Went too fast’
Støre claimed the entire issue was pushed through Parliament too quickly, and that’s why all parties have now agreed to hold a second vote this week, at which the proposal allowing up to two years of severance pay will be rejected after all. That didn’t keep the Labour Party’s Torstein Tvedt Solberg from doing a bad job of explaining Labour’s position and about-face on the issue during state broadcaster NRK’s popular live radio talk show Dagsnytt 18. Solberg repeatedly refused to answer program leader Fredrik Solvang’s question about when the Labour Party became aware of what the measure would actually provide.
“Kambe said he recognized (the dangers of the measure’s effects) right after summer,” Solvang told Solberg. “When did you (in Labour) become aware of them?”
Solberg wouldn’t say, answering only, again and again, that the matter would now be defeated and that it was positive that the MPs and parties involved had recognized they’d made a mistake and would reverse their positions. Solvang finally became so frustrated by the Labour politician’s refusal to explain how Labour could have allowed such a measure to get through Parliament that he declared to Solberg, live on the air, “You’re not going to be allowed to do what you’re doing, you must answer the question!” When Solberg still wouldn’t answer, Labour ended up being humiliated by others in the studio and has since had to live with excerpts of Solberg’s refusal to respond being replayed hundreds of thousands of times on social media.
“I had been sent (to NRK) to answer for the Labour Party’s turnaround, and it was a debate we knew we couldn’t win,” Solberg later told NRK. “It’s important that politicians answer for themselves when they make mistakes.”
He still denied he avoided answering questions, though. “I tried to answer the questions, but it wasn’t an easy issue and there were no easy answers.” In the end, he claimed he’d simply had “a bad day on the job.” So had many other MPs who must live with accusations that they nearly gave themselves an overly extravagant early Christmas present.