Even before Prime Minister Erna Solberg shook up her cabinet this week, concerns were rising that she was allowing her government to take a sharp turn to the right. The appointment of a new minister with a history of provocative remarks from the far right wing of the Progress Party fueled those concerns, as has a comeback being staged by the party’s former leader, who’s often been compared to Donald Trump.
It has all upset the leaders of the government’s two support parties in Parliament, who held an unusual press conference of their own after Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party, presented her three new ministers on Tuesday. “This is taking the government (farther) to the right, and away from us,” said Trine Skei-Grande of the centrist Liberal Party. She claimed that Solberg’s “dream of a four-party government coalition” including the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, “is not any closer after today.”
Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats agreed: “It’s difficult to say that this is an invitation to the center, rather to the contrary.” Hareide stressed, however, that all three new ministers appointed by Solberg should be judged on what they actually do now and not on the signals they sent before becoming part of the government.
That’s what Per-Willy Amundsen, who has now taken over as Norway’s new justice minister, claimed, too. He’s the most controversial of Solberg’s three new ministers from the Progress and Conservative parties, because of what he’s said on behalf of his party in the past.
‘Muslims lazy’ and climate change doubts
Amundsen has, for example, called for a “new Crusade” after characterizing muslims as “lazy” and claiming that more immigration from non-western countries can make Norway less democratic. He has also claimed that climate change is not a result of human activity, and called it “crazy” to spend billions of kroner on a “hypothesis” that climate change has been created by people.”
Immigration and climate change are important issues to the government’s two support parties, and that’s why both Grande and Hareide have been at odds with Amundsen in the past. Now his duties as justice minister have also put him in charge of Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, among other duties, a job he didn’t seem to have realized he held when questioned on state broadcaster NRK’s morning radio talk show Politisk Kvarter on Wednesday. Amundsen also refused to answer most of the questions put to him, and ridiculed the questions as well. “The way you’re forming your questions is rather funny,” he told both NRK and newspaper Aftenposten, before declining to answer them directly.
He wouldn’t say, for example, whether he still believes that immigration poses a threat to Norway, while the government’s official platform is that it has led to economic growth and diversity. Nor would he say where he stands now on climate issues.
Instead he separated what he said as a politician campaigning for the Progress Party and what he will say as a government minister. “When I express myself now,” he told Aftenposten, “it will be as a government minister. It will be the government’s policy that forms its platform and the cooperation agreement with the Liberals and Christian Democrats that applies. As a politician in the Progress Party and party spokesman on important and, let’s be honest, controversial issues, it was my job to front the party’s policy. Now I will uphold the government’s policy.”
Amundsen has been described as a “loyal and hard-working state secretary” in the most recent post he’s held at the ministry for local governments and administration. “I didn’t know Per-Willy Amundsen well before our government was formed in 2013,” his boss from the Conservatives, Minister Jan Tore Sanner, wrote in an email to newspaper Dagsavisen, “but we have had very good cooperation.” Sanner added that Amundsen also worked well with the professional divisions within the ministry, the government’s MPs and local politicians “from all parties.” Sanner also called Amundsen “thorough” and keen on carrying out the government’s projects. “He’s been a positive part of the political leadership in the ministry,” Sanner said.
Amundsen’s own defense of his work didn’t entirely reassure Grande, who’s especially concerned that he’ll be working closely with Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug, who until Tuesday was the most controversial and right-wing member of the government. “Now we have two ministers … who are both in climate denial and engage in rhetoric that is not inclusive regarding immigration,” Grande told Aftenposten. Amundsen’s rhetoric has been so harsh against immigrants that the head of the Norwegian Bar Association and former mayor of Tromsø for the Conservatives, lawyer Jens Johan Hjorth, once called upon Amundsen to try to “dig forth your brain and your heart.” Hjorth is now hoping for a better dialogue with Amundsen as justice minister.
Compounding the concerns of politicians like Grande and Hareide, and nearly all opposition leaders in Parliament, is the sudden political comeback of Carl I Hagen, the 72-year-old former leader of the Progress Party who retired when Siv Jensen took over his post but couldn’t stay away from politics for long. Hagen first reappeared after campaigning to win a seat on the Oslo City Council, which he lost when a Labour-led coalition won the last election.
Now Hagen has campaigned his way back into national politics, winning a spot on the Progress Party’s ticket that may lead to him landing a seat back in Parliament next fall. Hagen was one of the few Norwegian politicians who openly supported Donald Trump’s bid to become US president and, like Trump, Hagen has long wanted to limit immigration and denies climate change is a problem.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported over the weekend that Hagen has since won support from seven of the Progress Party’s MPs who want to alter the party’s program to reverse the moderate language it adapted in order to govern with the Conservatives. Hagen told DN he thinks there are many more Progress Party members who doubt climate change but who “are scared into silence by the elite.”
Party leader Siv Jensen was quick to point out that party members must follow the party’s current, moderated platform that officially accepts research that climate change has been caused by humans. “Hagen, like me, must go along with what’s in the party program,” Jensen told DN. It may be up for change, however, at the next party convention this spring.
While Hagen is pleased with what appears to be rising pressure from his side on the far right of party politics in Norway, others are bashing it. One of the Greens Party leaders, Une Aina Bastholm, called Hagen’s policies “an attack on the truth” and she worried Jensen wasn’t doing enough to rein him in. “Instead of declaring that the government naturally recognizes our time’s biggest challenge, she says she’ll wait to see what happens at the spring party meeting,” Bastholm wrote in Dagsavisen on Wednesday. She also drew parallels between Hagen and Trump, accusing them of aggressively attacking those whose research clashes with their ideology.
Nils C Stenseth, a professor at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies, went even farther, referring to Hagen as promoting “immoral lies” when saying there is no climate problem. “It’s clear Hagen has stopped listening when he finds someone who says things he doesn’t like to hear,” Stenseth wrote in Aftenposten on Wednesday. “Why should a politician be allowed to get away with that?”
Prime Minister Solberg is left to unify and rally her troops, and defend her fellow ministers. Solberg has also been criticized for allowing Listhaug to make often offensive remarks and carry out government policy regarding refugees and immigration in an aggressive manner.
Election researcher Bernt Aardal thinks Solberg’s new ministers may nonetheless do well, pointing to their track records in positions of governance. Terje Søviknes, for example, has remained mayor of a large community on Norway’s west coast for many years, “suggesting he has the ability to build consensus and cooperation,” Aardal said, while Amundsen put his earlier rhetoric aside in his job as state secretary.
“It’s been a turbulent autumn,” Aardal said, as all involved headed into the Christmas holidays. While the Progress Party may simply be trying to appeal to its right-wing voters ahead of next autumn’s election, Conservative MPs like Tina Bru and Henrik Asheim think common sense will win in the end.
“I think Carl I Hagen and the others (in his new group of supporters) are out of touch with their own party,” Bru told DN. “I have worked now with the Progress Party for three years and we have ratified the (UN’s) Paris agreement on the climate, approved a bunch of climate measures and agreed on the state budget. It would be strange if the party really didn’t believe in any of that.”