Parliament leader defies reprimand

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The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, is under fire and facing a public reprimand by the full multi-partisan membership of the parliament’s disciplinary committee. They claim Thommessen defied the will of Members of Parliament, by setting controversial terms for an evaluation of how a parliamentary commission monitors intelligence, surveillance and issues of national security.

A defiant Olemic Thommessen has said he sees no reason to give up his seat as President of the Norwegian Parliament. PHOTO: Stortinget

It’s not the first time Thommessen, who ranks second only to the monarch in his role as Norway’s Stortingspresident, has landed in trouble. He and his colleagues in the Parliament’s Office of the President have also been criticized for assuming command of an expansion and remodelling project and quickly losing control over it. That has led to massive budget overruns, torn up several streets south of the Parliament and turned the entire area into a massive construction zone that has disrupted activity for nearby offices, retail stores and even an embassy. The entire building scandal is currently under probe.

Now Thommessen is fending off serious charges of overstepping his bounds and violating Norwegian law. Even one of Thommessen’s own party fellows, veteran politician and Member of Parliament Michael Tetzschner of the Conservatives, told newspaper Aftenposten this week that Thommessen and colleagues in his office have broken the law. “The president’s office has not abided by it, and the lack of legality (behind how it told a parliamentary commission to carry out its duties) is unacceptable,” said Tetzschner, a member of the Parliament’s disciplinary committee and among those voting to reprimand Thommessen.

MP Per Olaf Lundteigen of the Center Party, another committee member, has called for Thommessen to resign his post as President of the Parliament. “The presidency shall not alter the will of the Parliament,” Lundteigen told Aftenposten. “That has happened in this case.”

‘Historic’ conflict
The conflict surrounding Thommessen has been described as “historic” because it marks the first time that a president of the Norwegian Parliament has been subjected to such a reprimand from a parliamentary committee. On Monday, Thommessen will be confronted with the criticism that, as newspaper Dagsavisen wrote on Friday, can be interpreted as a lack of confidence in him. Thommessen stands accused of trying to modify how a commission appointed by the Parliament, the so-called Solbakken-utvalg, should evaluate the work of another commission, the EOS-utvalg, which monitors how intelligence gathering, surveillance and national security measures are carried out in Norway.

The disciplinary committee, in a published summary of the issues it will confront Thommessen with on Monday, contends the president took it upon himself to remove one of the points from the Solbakken Commission’s mandate that it was supposed to evaluate: “How to secure Norwegian democratic control of foreign state’s surveillance of Norwegian citizens.” The committee also questioned, among other things, Thommessen’s competence in allowing an exception to the commission’s confidentiality clause, and how he withheld information about the conflict from the Parliament itself.

President defies the criticism
Thommessen is fighting back vigorously and claims the entire conflict has been blown out of proportion. Committee members claim Thommessen has been unwilling to accept criticism: “If the president’s office had simply apologized (for exceeding its own mandate), a lot of this criticism could have been avoided,” said MP Abid Raja of the Liberal Party. Instead Thommessen is widely viewed as behaving arrogantly and refusing to admit either he or his staff have done anything wrong. MP Martin Kolberg of the Labour Party, who leads the committee, has claimed that the actions of the president’s office could have jeopardized the EOS Commission’s legitimacy.

Thommessen has flatly refused to offer to resign. “I can’t understand that this is a case with the dimensions to suggest that,” he told Aftenposten. He claimed the disciplinary committee has actually toned down some of its earlier criticism. The closest he’d come to acknowledging any basis for the conflict was that his office and the committee “have a bit of a different view on these questions, and we take that under advisement.”

Can’t be fired
The Members of Parliament have no power to effectively fire its president like they can topple a government by voting for a lack of confidence in it. Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized on Friday that the harsh criticism against Thommessen should have prompted him to offer to resign. He won’t, and there’s only six months left of the four-year term to which the current conservative government appointed him in October 2013.

Thommessen remains defiant, even suggesting that the committee’s criticism itself threatens to undermine the entire Parliament as an institution. Others claim the disciplinary committee has simply been doing its job, while Thommessen has not. MP Raja claims Thommessen should still at least apologize to the Parliament: “That would not be unnatural,” he told NTB.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund