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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

New ministers step into the sunlight

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg marched out of the weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace on Friday with three new members of the coalition government he leads. The brilliant sunshine seemed to reflect at least the chance of a political spring for the new members’ Socialist Left party (SV) and for the government itself.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg presented his new cabinet ministers (holding flowers) on the grounds of the Royal Palace Friday. From left: Inga Marte Thorkildsen, Bård Vegar Solhjell and Heikki Holmås. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

“Sometimes it’s necessary for change and renewal,” Stoltenberg said in the warm springtime weather on the palace grounds. He said that even though the new ministers from SV are expected to push harder for their party’s positions on various issues, “I’m sure we’ll be able to find good solutions.”

Stoltenberg described the government’s new ministers Inga Marte Thorkildsen, Bård Vegar Solhjell and Heikki Holmås as all “energtic” and committed politicians who have more experience than their relatively young ages would imply. Thorkildsen, age 36, will take over the ministry in charge of children’s and equality issues, Solhjell, age 40, will lead the environmental ministry and Holmås, age 39, will take over a ministry dealing with development and foreign aid.

Bård Vegar Solhjell is Norway's new Minister for the Environment. He's also a deputy leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) and will lead SV's presence in the coalition government, since SV party leader Audun Lysbakken had to resign his ministerial post. Solhjell is a former education minister in the left-center coalition government.

The latter two have most recently been headed by “super minister” from SV, Erik Solheim, a veteran politician who didn’t want to leave the government but was forced to go along with the ministerial shake-up that’s part of a generational shift within the party. Stoltenberg said he thought it was a good idea to once again separate the two important areas of development and the environment, with individual ministers in charge of each.

Stoltenberg also praised Solheim’s work in the outdoor midday session that was carried live on national TV. “Erik Solheim has made a formidable contribution for the climate and the environment,” said Stoltenberg, thanking both Solheim and another minister who lost her post in the ministerial shuffle, Tora Aasland, for their work. He said  “it’s always sad to take farewell” with other good government colleagues, but he thinks the new government structure and new faces made for “good renewal” of his cabinet.

Inga Marte Thorkildsen is also a deputy leader of SV and will take over the ministry in charge of family and equality issues. She has vowed to better protect children and improve integration in Norway.

The changes take effect immediately, with the ceremonial handing-over of office keys taking place Friday afternoon. Speculation was already running high over what Solheim would do next, after around 30 years in politics, parliament and government. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that he already has turned down an offer to join a local public relations and consulting firm, First House, that’s building up a large staff of former politicians and high-profile civil servants who charge high fees to share their advice and experience.

Instead, Solheim is tipped to be named Norway’s next ambassador to the United Nations, a post that’s coincidentally or not just being made vacant because the current ambassador Morten Wetland is leaving government service to join First House. Solheim, who has a long record of experience with the foreign ministry, is also a candidate to be an ambassador to another country, and has reportedly indicated an interest in China.

Heikki Holmås was a candidate to be leader of SV but withdrew when Audun Lysbakken appeared to have majority support. Holmås will now be government minister in charge of development and foreign aid.

All the new ministers, meanwhile, expressed a keen desire to get to work quickly in their respective areas. Thorkildsen claimed she had a “strong and genuine” commitment to children’s needs. She said she wasn’t worried about taking over a ministry that’s been in the critical spotlight over funding irregularities that forced the resignation of her predecessor Audun Lysbakken, who nonetheless was elected SV’s party leader and is behind the ministerial changes. Thorkildsen also said she would support Lysbakken’s plans to better protect children’s interests, not least in the case of refugee children who face deportation from Norway. Even as she assumed her post on Friday came news of the deportation of a nine-year-old girl back to Bosnia, which her parents had fled before she was born in Norway.

Holmås agreed he was “unusually energetic” and told NRK he wants “to improve the world,” not just Norway. He thinks he can do that, through Norwegian foreign aid to development abroad. And Solhjell vowed to move forward with the long-awaited government climate report that Solheim has had to delay because of disagreement over emissions cuts within the government coalition.

The entire ministerial shake-up has won support within SV’s membership even though it meant sacrificing Solheim and Aasland, both of whom won high marks for doing good jobs. But the party has lost critical amounts of voter support over the past year and needs renewal. “And renewal demands personnel changes,” said MP Hallgeir Langeland. Or as Solhjell said: “We need to get folks to see us with new eyes.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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