Norway’s small Center Party, known for championing the interests of the country’s rural areas over its cities, has found itself under harsh questioning in the heart of the capital lately over money it accepted for renewable energy projects. The funds ended up being used on last year’s campaign instead, which also left the party open to potential conflicts of interest.
Liv Signe Navarsete, leader of the party that’s part of Norway’s coalition government, was grilled at an open hearing on Tuesday conducted by the Parliament’s committee on scrutiny and constitutional affairs (Kontrol- og konstitusjonskomiteen). She’s taking responsibility for the trouble that is seriously damaging her party’s credibility, raising doubts even among her party’s counterparts from other centrist parties, and causing yet another problem for the government.
Oil and Energy Minister Terje Riis-Johansen, who’s been under pressure on several other matters this year, most recently the controversy over power line construction in Hardanger, swears he never was told about the renewable energy projects. Questions were raised earlier this fall, when news of the controversial funding broke and Riis-Johansen already had handled other matters involving the two companies that gave the Center Party several hundred thousand kroner: Eidsiva Energi and Troms Kraft. That’s what led to the conflict-of-interest issues.
Navarsete also says Riis-Johansen wasn’t told the two firms had contributed the funding, although newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) could reveal e-mails to Riis-Johansen suggesting otherwise. Riis-Johansen and his secretary claims he never read the e-mails.
Fellow politicians in Parliament were clearly skeptical, despite Navarsete’s public apology to Riis-Johansen that he was kept in the dark. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Wednesday that the party’s political allies don’t believe the Center Party officials’ explanations. One thing is that money raised and billed as support for renewable energy projects ended up in the party’s general account and was instead used for election campaign funding. Another is that internal party communication was at the very least poor, leaving Riis-Johansen exposed to awkward situations that he now must explain.
Per-Kristian Foss, a former finance minister from the Conservatives, was tough in his questioning and told reporters later that he suspects billings (faktura) were falsified. Trine Skei Grande of the Liberal Party (Venstre), which recently shared government power with the Center Party, was also tough and dissatisfied with Navarsete’s answers.
Foss said he wouldn’t be surprised if the police end up being called in to investigate the Center Party’s finances. The party paid back the money to both firms, but that may not save them from a confidence crisis, at a time when polls show the party holds only 4.4 percent of the vote, barely enough to retain representation in Parliament.