Parliament leaders in trouble again

Members of the Norwegian Parliament (MPs) were not happy on Monday to read that their president and his secretary general have spent time and money hiring a special baker who can make French pastries for them and a machine that can emboss their business cards in gold. The small luxuries, among others, have emerged just as embattled President Olemic Thommessen is already under heavy criticism for hundreds of millions of budget overruns and failing to keep MPs informed about them.

Olemic Thommessen, shown here wearing his bunad and waving to the crowds on Norway’s Constitution Day, has landed in more trouble for spending time and money on things like a pastry chef, a new “visual identity” for the Parliament and a machine that can emboss MPs business cards in gold. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Thommessen, who as Stortingspresident ranks second only to King Harald V in the Norwegian hierarchy, now has to fend off more accusations that he’s acted (as one MP from his own party put it) “as if money doesn’t matter.”

Just this year, he’s had to justify huge budget overruns on an ill-fated construction project for which his office assumed responsibility, and strong complaints from MPs that he defied their will in an evaluation of national security. Last week he also was questioned over how he hosted dinners for royals and other dignitaries in his private home, and at which his violinist son performed, during last year’s Youth Olympics at Lillehammer. All the bills were sent to Norway’s national athletics federation.

Now newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported that his Office of the President (Storingets Presidentskapet) has been busy trying to make it much more fancy. Thommessen and his secretary general, Ida Børresen, saw a need for a new “visual identity” for the Norwegian Parliament itself, and paid a design bureau NOK 2.4 million to develop one. They also paid for a “quality check” of the project.

Since it ushered in the use of gold embossing on printed materials, they also paid NOK 1.6 million  for a machine that could, for example, print MPs’ business cards and other other materials in gold letters.

Meanwhile, DN could report that the number of “chiefs” at the Parliament has increased from 30 in 2010 to 38 now. The total number of employees at the Parliament has risen from 424 in 2008 to 495 and the Parliament’s operating budget has grown from NOK 736 million four years ago to NOK 905 million, up nearly 23 percent during the existing parliamentary period.

Ida Børressen, chief administrator at the Parliament, presenting its new “visual profile” last fall. It cost more thatn NOK 2 million, plus the machine that can print cards in gold. PHOTO: Stortinget/Morten Brakestad

It’s the hiring of a special baker (called a konditor in Norwegian) who can make French macaroons and other pastries to be served at receptions that’s caught the most criticism, along with the gold embossing. Marit Arnstad, a former government minister and parliamentary leader for the Center Party, and Michael Tetzschner, who, like Thommessen represents the Conservative Party, calls such use of taxpayers’ money part of a “bad culture” they fear has developed under Thommessen at the highest levels of the venerable institution.

“The Parliament has become a victim of a classic bureaucratization where an expanding leadership becomes concerned with things other than their primary mission,” Arnstad told DN. She claimed the president’s office has “become more preoccupied with receptions than with the core work of the Parliament.”

Tetzschner, who’s often at odds with the Center Party, agreed. “Their use of money also points to a connection between their uncritical use of public funds in the building case,” Tetzschner told DN. “When the top leaders of an organization spread an impression as if money doesn’t matter, you get the bad culture you’ve ordered.”

MPs from the Socialist Left party (SV) were fuming over DN‘s report, claiming that “we’re not a royal palace, we’re supposed to be the people’s house.” MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday afternoon that it’s also “a paradox that they order pomp and luxury for themselves while those working on the floor (he was referring to cleaning staff and security guard services) are being treated poorly.”

“We’re not a royal palace, we’re supposed to be the people’s house,” complained MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes after reading in DN about the president of the Parliament’s spending on what Fylkesnes views as unnecessary luxury. President Olemic Thommessen traditionally waves from the Parliament’s balcony to the 17th of May Parade passing below on Norway’s Constitution Day. Norway’s real Royal Palace is seen in the background. PHOTO: Stortinget

“It’s very important that the Parliament reflects Norwegian society, and not becomes the elite,” Fylkesnes added.

Tetzschner noted that the actual amounts of money involved on the “visual profile” and gold embossing were relatively small in the overall state budget. “But it’s a sign of something bigger,” he said. “I haven’t noticed any demand for these esthetic enhancements from the elected officials.”

Neither Thommessen nor Børresen would consent to interviews with DN, nor were they returning calls from other reporters on Monday. Børresen, however, wrote to DN that the president’s office is trying “to develop services” for the MPs, and make parliamentary operations more “efficient and professional.” She also stressed that the expenses made up a “very small” portion of the Parliament’s budget. She also pointed to good feedback in a survey of MPs this spring, who said they were pleased with the Parliament’s services.

Things were “probably more informal earlier,” Børresen conceded, “and some MPs may think things have become more bureaucratic.” She noted, though, that the Parliament currently has imposed a hiring freeze and a 2.5 percent budget cut to boost efficiency.

For some of the MPs, it’s more a matter of priorities, and their impression that Thommessen is a man concerned with appearances. “The administration clearly doesn’t think waffles are good enough anymore, but would rather have French macaroons with the Parliament’s lion embossed on them,” Arnstad told DN. “I don’t think it’s the elected officials who have demanded this upgrade.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund