New party leader stumbles at the start

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Government minister Audun Lysbakken is off to a rocky start as incoming leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), even before he’s formally elected at the party’s national meeting next month. He’s being blasted for everything from poor judgment to possible corruption, after his ministry approved public funding for young SV supporters for a course in self-defense.

Audun Lysbakken was expected to revive the Socialist Left party (SV) as its new leader, but he's instead landed in trouble over his deputy's decision to push for state funding for a group closely tied to SV. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

Now it’s Lysbakken himself who’s on the defense, after accusations that he inappropriately blended his roles as a party leader and a government leader. Even though it reportedly was his second-in-command, State Secretary Kirsti Bergstø, who pushed through the funding for female members of SV’s youth organization SU, Lysbakken is the one taking the heat.

He’s been grilled by both Members of Parliament, leaders of opposition parties, the head of Transparency International and the press, and on Wednesday he “la seg flat” (literally, “laid himself flat,” a popular Norwegian expression for admitting mistakes). He conceded that he and his closest colleagues had made an “unwise evaluation” that led to the highly criticized funding allocation.

Lysbakken, who heads the government ministry in charge of family and equality issues, has apologized earlier for his ministry’s decision to award NOK 154,000 (about USD 27,500) to a group initially formed within SU that’s called Jenteforsvaret. The money was part of a total allocation of NOK 500,000 to boost self-defense capabilities among women at a time when Oslo was subject to a wave of assaults and robberies last year.

Lysbakken’s apology isn’t being accepted, though, especially after documents released this week revealed that his own top bureaucrats at the ministry advised against awarding funding to a group so closely tied to his political party. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported how a written advisory dated November 9, 2011 noted that such an allocation “raises questions” since it involved the award of public funds to the youth group of the sitting political leadership.

Lysbakken’s state secretary Bergstø, herself a former leader of SU, responded in writing a few days later that she “did not agree” that Jenteforsvaret’s request for funding should be rejected. She claimed it was an independent group, registered with state authorities, and that its members didn’t need to also be members of SU/SV.

The other problem, though, is that the funding itself hadn’t been publicly announced as being available, so other groups didn’t get a chance to compete for the money.

‘Should have listened to their warning’
Lysbakken is now taking full responsibility and admitting that he and his fellow political leaders made a mistake. “In this case, it’s clear that embetsverket (the bureaucratic leadership within ministries that remains constant while politicians come and go) made a better evaluation of this issue than we did,” he told Dagsavisen. “The main problem isn’t that we didn’t listen to them, it’s that we didn’t do a better job ourselves.”

Asked whether political leaders should think twice before rejecting the bureaucrats’ advice, Lysbakken said “yes, that’s why I’m saying we made an unwise evaluation. We should have listen to their warning, there’s no doubt about that.”

Opposition politicians still aren’t satisfied, questioning whether Lysbakken should continue as a government minister and making moves to call him in before the parliament’s disciplinary committee. “A government minister must know the difference between the role of minister as a manager of public funds, and the role of a party leader,” said Per-Kristian Foss, a veteran MP for the Conservative Party and a former minister himself. Lysbakken, Foss said, has violated state funding rules and what Foss called “good management practices.”

Major setback for Lysbakken and his party
The entire issue is extremely unfortunate for Lysbakken, who’s due to take over as leader of a party that’s desperately in need of revival after a lengthy decline in public opinion polls. He’s likely to survive, though, since the leaders of the three government coalition parties are expected to hold top government roles. It would be difficult for Stoltenberg to admit to a lack of confidence in Lysbakken, given the need for government unity.

It remains unclear whether Bergstø will survive her mistake, but Lysbakken seemed inclined to protect her. “This is a case where errors were made, but everything the political leadership in the ministry does, occurs under the power of my approval, and the responsibility lies with me,” he said. He also stressed that the entire goal of the self-defense funding was to help women protect themselves. “There’s really nothing more behind this than that,” he said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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