Gift debate may spur cabinet reshuffle

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Criticism over gifts accepted by politicians, along with a series of government flaps in recent months, may lead to some personnel changes among Norway’s cabinet ministers. Political observers expect at least a few heads will roll by yearend.

Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa's days as transport minister may be numbered. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Norway’s coalition government is made up of three parties that are allotted a certain number of ministerial posts each. They generally refrain from getting involved in one another’s personnel issues, but Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party is believed to be irritated over several missteps by his government colleagues from the Center Party. Some of them are expected to be the first to go.

Highest on the list of those believed targeted for replacement are Oil and Energy Minister Terje Riis-Johansen and Transport Minister Magnild Meltveit Kleppa, both from the small Center Party. Its boss, Liv Signe Navarsete, has also been at the heart of the gift debate and has apologized for accepting and failing to report the gift of an expensive bracelet from a shipyard controlled by industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke.

Kleppa also got into gift trouble over her acceptance of a bracelet in another ship-christening. She failed to report the gift to the tax authorities and already was under pressure for being seen as a weak transport minister during last winter’s chaos involving the state railway and railroad system.

So too those of Oil and Energy Minister Terje Riis-Johansen. PHOTO: Olje- og energi departementet

Riis-Johansen seems to have steered clear of the gift controversy but has been under fire repeatedly over major issues such as delays in construction of a carbon capture facility at a major Statoil refinery and, most recently, outcry over construction of power lines over the scenic Hardanger Fjord.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that government officials are speaking fairly openly about looming ministerial changes. If the parties involved feel their ministers are too weak, they won’t wait to make changes, despite a lack of prodding from Stoltenberg.

The question is who would replace the ministers involved. One hot name, according to Aftenposten, is Liv Monica Bargem Stubholt, who is a member of the Center Party’s main board and made a name for herself as a state secretary in the foreign ministry and as a top official in the oil and energy ministry. She left government service last year to become one of Røkke’s most important colleagues at industrial group Aker, a move that forced her into six months of quarantine before she could start. She’s due to take over as head of Aker Clean Carbon this fall.

Some observers, including a professor at the University in Tromsø and opposition politicians, told Aftenposten they think Stubholt’s candidacy is risky because it could further brand the government, which has invested heavily in Aker, as being too “Røkke-friendly.” Others claim Stubholt is so well-respected, clever and smart that party leader Navarsete may view her as a personal threat. Stubholt herself wouldn’t comment.

Even though Labour’s Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen also has been caught up in the gift debate, and often is under fire as health minister, she seems likely to survive any cabinet shake-up. Stoltenberg is viewed as being very satisfied with his fellow Labour ministers.

The Socialist Left, meanwhile, may make a few changes if only to usher some younger members into higher office. Inga Marte Thorkildsen is a target of speculation as new minister for the environment, relieving Erik Solheim who could then concentrate on foreign aid in his cabinet post in the Foreign Ministry.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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