Conflicts of interest foil day care debate

Bookmark and Share

A debate over day care centers has broken out in Norway but it’s been overshadowed by an even louder debate over related conflicts of interest, after one of the hard-pressed government coalition’s own former ministers fueled the attack on day care provisions he once helped form.

Cabinet Minister Kristin Halvorsen (center) has been the loudest critic of former fellow minister Bjarne Håkon Hanssen's role switch. She hopes her government colleagues Liv Signe Navarsete (left) and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will address concerns about quarantine rules and conflicts of interest. PHOTO: SV

Former minister Bjarne Håkon Hanssen already made waves when he suddenly resigned his high-profile, top government post last fall, shortly after the September election, and then announced that he was going into the public relations business. Some felt Hanssen, a Labour Party veteran and trusted member of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s government, had misled voters and let Stoltenberg down.

Others voiced concerns that Hanssen’s abrupt change of career presented potential conflicts of interest, because he knew so much about the inner workings of government. His employers and potential clients viewed his political experience and knowledge as highly valuable.

Hanssen was subject to the state’s maximum quarantine period of six months, and started working for PR and consulting firm First House as soon as he was legally released from quarantine. It didn’t take long for the first conflict to arise, over day care.

The much-used photo of former government minister Bjarne Håkon Hansen advertising his switch to PR, and posted on his new employer's web site.

‘Hanssen is for sale’
Hanssen’s client is a company called Espira, one of Norway’s biggest owners of private day care centers. The government of which Hanssen was a part had called on private investors to help build day care centers all over the country so that all parents could obtain child care. Many responded and went into the day care business.

The government later proposed limits, while Hanssen was still one of its ministers, on the amount of dividends private day care centers can claim on their operations, and on their profits on an eventual sale. The government reasoned that since it’s subsidizing day care operations, it’s entitled to ensure that the private day care center owners don’t make too much money on their operations.

That’s set off howls of protests from private owners like Espira. They claim the state has no business trying to exert such control over their operations, and some are threatening to close their day care centers in protest. That would affect thousands of children all over the country.

But it’s Hanssen’s role in the conflict that’s causing the most noise. His former government colleague Kristin Halvorsen is furious that he’s now selling advice on how her ministry’s proposal can be attacked. She claims that after years of government service, “he now serves those who pay. He is for sale.”

Hanssen’s own former Labour Party colleague Marit Nybakk has told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she views Hanssen’s new influence peddling as “reprehensible and immoral.”

Thorny issues
Hanssen himself staunchly defends his new role and insists, as he did last fall, that he’s not doing anything wrong. After refusing to talk to reporters while on holiday last week on Crete, he came home over the weekend and told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that he has followed all the existing quarantine rules and feels he’s on firm moral ground.

“If the government wants new rules, let them make them,” Hanssen told DN. “They have a majority (in Parliament), as far I know.”

Calls are already going out to toughen the rules for government officials who want to earn money as influence peddlers or public relations advisers after leaving public service. Some politicians, alarmed over Hanssen’s legal but controversial role, are urging rules like those proposed by US President Barack Obama, that no cabinet member can become a private adviser as long as the cabinet is still in place.

Hanssen’s role switch has created another thorny problem for Stoltenberg and his other top Labour colleagues who long have viewed Hanssen as a friend. Karl Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen, Stoltenberg’s chief of staff and a former Labour minister himself, told reporters that it’s unclear whether quarantine rules will be beefed up and he otherwise seemed reluctant to address the Hanssen affair.

His colleague Martin Kolberg, deputy leader of Labour’s members of Parliament and a former party secretary, believes the rules will be changed, to protect the legitimacy of politics.

“We can’t have a situation where (government officials) are given massive amounts of public confidence and the highest political posts, and then think they can simply turn off the button and say they’re only serving business interests,” Kolberg told DN, in a thinly veiled rebuke to Hanssen. “Six months of quarantine is nothing after decades of high positions in Norwegian politics.

“The rules will be sharpened, there’s no doubt about that.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
Join our 
Forum if you’d like to comment on this story.