Pressure builds on youngest minister

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Inga Marte Thorkildsen is the latest government official to land in trouble for allegedly abusing her political power. Just a month after taking over as cabinet minister in charge of family and equality issues, she’s under harsh criticism for involving herself in a specific case of suspected child abuse while she was still a Member of Parliament.

Inga Marte Thorkildsen, sitting at left, took over as government minister in charge of family and equality issues, with emphasis on children's affairs. A month later, she's under fire for involving herself in an incest case. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

Thorkildsen, age 35 from the Socialist Left party (SV), is the youngest of all the 20 ministers who now make up Norway’s left-center coalition government. When she was royally appointed to her first cabinet post in late March, she said she wanted to be remembered as “an uncompromising champion” of children who were victims of the worst kinds of abuse.

Now she may be remembered for something else, as demands rise for her to either make a full apology for what many consider inappropriate political meddling and accept the boundaries of her job, or step down.

‘An unusual situation’
Thorkildsen, who recently has been called the new “queen” of her political party, readily confirmed a story in newspaper Dagbladet over the weekend that she personally had called the police officer in charge of investigating a case of alleged incest against a little boy. Thorkildsen denies, however, that she tried to tell the police how to do their job.

“It was an unusual situation, but I just wanted them (the police investigators) to evaluate sending a child to Barnehuset (a state institution that cares for abused children),” Thorkildsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday, as she started getting bombarded with criticism after Dagbladet’s story was published. Thorkildsen said she worries that children aren’t always heard, and she apparently thought Barnehuset could do a better job of questioning the child than the police.

She made the call while still sitting in the parliament for SV, before taking over her ministerial post, and even Thorkildsen admits she wouldn’t have made such a call as a minister. It’s widely viewed as an attempt at exerting political influence over professional bureaucrats, but Thorkildsen claimed she “stood by” what she did, for the sake of the child.

Asked whether that wasn’t problematic, Thorkildsen agreed on national radio that it was “a huge dilemma” but she felt a child’s rights were at stake. Thorkildsen had been made aware of “certain information” about the child and the alleged incest that “was so serious … I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t passed it on.”

Criticism keeps pouring in
Her call, however, was rebuffed by the police investigator who didn’t appreciate having an MP on the line with alleged advice. The investigator was supported by Norway’s påtalemyndighet (prosecuting authority), which publicly stated it was correct to ignore such political interference.

Then veteran politician and former finance minister Per-Kristian Foss joined the growing chorus of critics, telling NRK it was “unheard of” for an MP to make such a call. Foss hails from the opposition Conservative Party, so doesn’t hesitate to criticize the government, but he’s also a vice president of the Parliament and he said Thorkildsen’s call “was absolutely at odds with how Members of Parliament are supposed to conduct themselves.”

The leader of the police union, Arne Johannessen, said Thorkildsen “showed incredibly bad judgment” in the matter and more critics emerged on Monday, also over remarks Thorkildsen wrote on social media that angered the child’s father. High-profile local attorney Mette Yvonne Larsen borrowed the typical Norwegian expression used when someone needs to unconditionally admit to making a mistake: “She needs to lay herself down as flat as she can,” Larsen told NRK. The alternative, it was suggested, would be to resign.

Thorkildsen was still refusing to do either as of Monday afternoon. She told newspaper Dagsavisen that she had told new SV leader Audun Lysbakken about the call before she took over his former ministry – which, it should be noted, he had to give up over a funding flap that involved an abuse of power on his part. Lysbakken reportedly thought Thorkildsen’s call wasn’t a problem, but he’s out traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who’s ultimately responsible for the conduct of his fellow ministers, sent the following response to Dagsavisen: “Inga Marte Thorkildsen oriented me about the case before she was appointed as a minister. She has stressed that she of course wouldn’t have taken such contact as minister.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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