Ugly harassment soils Center Party

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UPDATED: Norway’s Center Party, known for championing the interests of farmers and rural districts, is facing national disgrace after revelations of some ugly sexual harassment against its former leader, Liv Signe Navarsete. It came from a group of 10 men, eight of whom have held top party roles, who were on holiday together at a mountain hytte (cabin) two years ago and sent Navarsete a late-night obscene text message aimed at intimidating her. Only now are party leaders following up on Navarsete’s complaint, and only after the harassment became national news.

Liv Signe Navarsete had a turbulent period as leader of the Center Party, and stepped down shortly after the left-center government in which she served lost re-election in 2013. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

“They wanted to remind me that (in their opinion) I was a piece of shit,” an unusually open Navarsete told newspaper VG after a smaller newspaper that specializes in coverage of rural issues, Nationen, broke the story of her harassment late last week. She freely admits that the men involved, who included her old internal rival and former Oil Minister Ola Borten Moe, “were not my friends or supporters.” Even Navarsete, who survived a power struggle with Moe when they both served as ministers in Norway’s former left-center government, was surprised by the hard-core nature of the message, that could also be interpreted as a threat.

It suggested, in particularly coarse Norwegian, that the men “wanted” her sexual organ. “It was an intimidation, more forceful, much meaner than before,” Navarsete told VG, suggesting it wasn’t the first time she’d been the target of sexual harassment. “I have heard that I have been referred to in an extremely negative manner in this milieu at other parties, too,” she said.

Navarsete, known as a tough politician with a temper herself, has never spoken publicly about the incident before, and claims she did not tip Nationen. Someone else clearly did, just two days after Ola Borten Moe had attacked the leader of the rival Liberal Party, Trine Skei Grande, over how she had handled a sex scandal of her own. That’s led political commentators in Norway to claim that Moe must or should be especially embarrassed over the harassment of Navarsete and how it was suppressed for two years.

The news of the harassment against Navarsete also came after party officials had bragged that they hadn’t received any reports of sexual harassment within the party during the past five years. That can’t be true, given a recent case in Hedmark following alleged harassment, and Narvarsete’s claim that she alerted party officials to the message from the men back in 2016. It came via the mobile phone and Facebook account of one of the guests at the hytte party, Morten Søberg, a former political adviser to Moe who also was a state secretary in the finance ministry when the Center Party was a member of the left-center government coalition. Søberg, now a director at SpareBank 1 in charge of contact with the public sector, has denied either formulating or sending the message.

As Center Party leader, Liv Signe Navarsete was often at odds with deputy leader Ola Borten Moe, even when both served as ministers in the former left-center government. The party’s leadership was harshly criticized in an internal report, but their power struggle continued until Navarsete stepped down in 2014. Moe remains a deputy leader but is no longer a Member of Parliament and now works in the oil business. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

Moe also denies having a role in the message, telling VG that “I have said it was an unacceptable message that I first heard about a week after the trip (to the hytte at Storlien in Sweden).” On Friday, however, former party leader Aslaug Haga was calling on party leaders to suspend Moe and the others, all of whom are his allies within the party that has a history of divisivenes, until whoever was responsible for the offensive text message comes forth. Moe immediately objected, claiming that would be a form of unacceptable collective punishment.

None of the other eight men will admit to being behind the message. Navarsete believes they’ve all “been protecting each other” ever since. VG reported that the other Center Party men at the now-nationally famous hyttefest included Stjørdal Mayor Ivar Vigdenes, Steinkjer Mayor Bjørn Arild Gram, Erlend Fuglum (a former leader of the party’s youth group and former state secretary who went into PR), Thomas Iver Hallem (who’s recently been in charge for transport in Nord-Trøndelag), Rune Hjulstad (who, as party secretary in Nord-Trøndeand, once refused to allow photos to be taken at a party board meeting) and Jostein Grande (a local politician in Verdal who’s been employed by the party, mostly working for Moe and veteran Center Party politician Marit Arnstad). Both Vigdenes and Gram have denied sending the message, too.

Not much happened after Navarsete initially alerted party leadership to the harassment. Party officals reportedly looked into it and questioned Søberg, who claims he left his phone on a table at the hytte when he needed to go to the toilet, indicating someone else may have picked it up and sent the offensive message. Both Navarsete and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum believe that version, leaving the question of who seized the opportunity to send what VG calls “such an embarrassing and scandalous message to the party’s former leader and government minister for many years.”

Vedum was responsible for investigating the complaint but didn’t get any farther and also claims he had the impression Navarsete didn’t want to pursue her complaint. He’s being harshly criticized for poor leadership and ignoring an embarrasing and disruptive issue for the party. Now Vedum has asked the party’s secretary general, Knut M Olsen, to take up the probe again and resolve the harassment case that threatens the party’s image just as annual negotiations over state subsidy and tariff support for farmers (the party’s biggest constituency) are about to begin.

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (right) has since taken over as leader of the Center Party but failed to resolve the harassment against Navarsete. Now the party’s secretary general, Knut Olsen, has been charged with finding out who sent a highly offensive message to Navarsete. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

“I’m working on it, I have contact with all those involved and close contact with Liv Signe (Navarsete),” Olsen told VG. “I don’t want to say anything about how I’m working. If we’re to succeed in resolving this issue, confidentiality is important.”

Olsen claims the goal is “to find out who sent the message and take care of those involved as best we can.”  Confidentiality is especially important, he said, because other victims of harassment must feel confident that they can come forward, be taken seriously and confidentially.

On Tuesday Navarsete won public support from party colleague Kjersti Toppe, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party from Hordaland who claimed on national radio Tuesday morning that the party must find out who’s responsible for the harassment. “Whoever sent that message must of course stand forward and own up to it,” Toppe told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). She added that all  10 men at the party have a “collective responsibility” in the case, instead of just hiding behind one another.

“This has been quite a terrible case for Liv Signe and the party,” Toppe said. “It’s unacceptable that such things happen at the top of Norwegian politics.” The matter won’t be resolved, she believes, until whoever sent the message admits to it. “And then Liv Signe is owed an apology,” Toppe said.

Navarsete told NRK on Tuesday that she appreciates the support she’s received since the news broke. “The worst thing with all this is that no one has taken responsibility, and that (Søberg) is sitting there looking like he’s to blame,” she said. “That’s not right either.” She expects Olsen to rout out the guilty man, inform the party’s board “and conclude all this in a proper manner.”

Another thing bothers Navarsete, who stepped down as party leader in 2014 and currently has a seat in Parliament: “When I got the message, I thought, ‘why can’t I be left alone even when I’m out of the party’s leadership?'” She’s hoping the case will finally be resolved, also to send a message that politicians, both experienced and inexperienced, must be allowed to do their jobs and express opinions without fear of being subjected to harassment.

“I’m only commenting on this case because I want to contribute towards reducing the potential for this happening to other women who get involved in politics,” she told VG. “We must secure ourselves against harassment like this.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund