Politicians copy Swedes’ gathering

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The scenic town of Arendal on Norway’s southern coast, long a magnet for Norwegians on summer holiday, is now set to host the country’s top politicians as well. They’re mounting their own version of their Swedish counterparts’ popular Almedalsveckan on the island of Gotland, which has become an important arena for political debate involving the public.

The popular and historic coastal town of Arendal will soon host Norway's top politicians in addition to late summer tourists. PHOTO: Views and News

The idea is to make national politicians more visible and more accessible, and stir public interest in the political process. Most debate among top decision-makers generally takes place inside the Parliament or television studios. The new late summer event that’s been dubbed Arendalsuka will unfold from August 14-17 before live audiences and with public participation, rather like a long series of town meetings.

“I’m looking forward to this,” Siv Jensen, head of the conservative Progress Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “There have been fewer arenas for political debate and a bit less political pressure lately. Arrangements like this are important for democracy.”

Leaders of Norway's parties in opposition will get a chance for public debate with government leaders and discussions among themselves. From left: Trine Skei Grande of the Liberal Party, Siv Jensen of the Progress Party, Erna Solberg of the Conservatives and Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats. PHOTO: Venstre

Jensen also thinks the open debate among party leaders like herself, other top politicians, business leaders and the public will also clarify positions and highlight differences among the parties and their members. She’ll be traveling to Arendal along with Labour Party boss and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Conservatives’ leader Erna Solberg and all the other party leaders including Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats, Liv Signe Navarsete of the Center Party, Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left (SV), and Trine Skei Grande of the Liberal Party.

Several other government ministers including Trade Minister Trond Giske of the Labour Party will also be in Arendal next week along with officials from major organizations including those both against and in favour of joining the European Union, and former prime ministers including Kåre Willoch from the Conservatives and Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democrats. Their goal is to establish Arendalsuka as public arena for “open and constructive” discussion and, as Jensen stressed, contribute to something important.

“We have to at least try,” Jensen said. “I don’t think I’m alone in wanting more public debate.” And not just during the months prior to elections.

Arendal's busy waterfront will be teeming with Norway's "powers that be," along with local organizers and, most likely, lots of lobbyists. PHOTO: Views and News

One of Jensen’s traditional rivals, Grande of the Liberal Party, agreed. “We need more arenas like this to discuss policies,” Grande told Dagsavisen. “The media has almost taken it away from us. I’m a big fan of open and direct debate among the parties, and think it’s important for informing the public where we stand.”

The event was initiated by the editor of the local newspaper Agderposten, Stein Gauslaa, who thinks the success of the Swedish politicians’ week in Almedal on Gotland, Almedalsveckan, proves that there’s pent-up demand for an open meeting place for Norway’s leaders as well. The Swedish event now attracts around 12,000 participants, had more than 1,400 events on its program and was attended by foreign leaders as well, from around 20 countries. Norway’s admittedly “idealistic” version was supposed to debut in early August of last year, but was cancelled because of the terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011. Now organizers have regrouped and are hope to mount the event annually.

Controversial partner
One of Norway’s largest and, lately, most controversial public relations firms also has played a role in organizing Arendalsuka. Leif Monsen, a partner in the firm First House, told Dagsavisen that one of the other initiators behind the event was First House’s chief executive Per Høiby from nearby Kristiansand, who also happens to be the brother of Crown Princess Mette-Marit. “This started long before First House was formed,” Monsen said. “But we have wanted to be part of setting the idea into action.”

Monsen claims First House isn’t going to be active at Arendalsuka only to hook new clients, but also to take part in debates “because we are socially and politically committed people who want to contribute to a new arena for political debate.” Other sponsors and partners in Arendalsuka include the local bank in Arendal, construction company Veidekke and BW Offshore.

The social and political activism and connections among First House staff is what’s sparked controversy in recent months, as a long string of top politicians have left public life to take well-paying jobs at the PR firm. Their powerful networks and insider knowledge are attractive to First House clients willing to pay high hourly consulting rates.

Concerns over  influence peddling
The exodus from the halls of government and parliament to the offices of First House has raised questions of conflicts of interest and influence peddling, along with calls for tougher regulation of those making the transition from top politics to paid consultancy. New recruits may face longer periods of quarantine than former government minister Bjarne Håkon Hanssen and former state secretaries like Guri Størvld and Kjetil Lindseth did when they accepted offers from First House. The firm has also recently recruited Norway’s ambassador to the UN and longtime diplomat from the Labour Party Morten Wetland.

Some top politicians have blasted the defections of former colleagues, and First House officials’ involvement in Arendalsuka. Per Olaf Lundteigen, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party, told reporters that First House was only interested in money  and was keen on influencing the event’s agenda. Thorbjørn Jagland, a former prime minister for the Labour Party, has earlier criticized First House’s accumulation of former top politicians, saying there’s “something unhealthy”about it, especially when his own party that now leads the government loses so many to the PR firm. First House has fended off such criticism, saying many other PR and consulting firms have former politicians as well, and Arendalsuka’s staff downplayed First House’s involvement in next week’s event.

Perhaps they’ll all debate the influence issue when mingling in Arendal, along with other pressing matters of the day. Party leaders will meet for a formal debate in Arendal’s rådhus (City Hall) on Thursday, with other events including a party youth organizations’ debate on Tuesday, a speech on Wednesday by Defense Minister Grete Faremo on Norway’s emergency preparedness and outdoor debates on joining the EU and Norway’s social welfare system on Thursday and Friday. There will be a variety of entertainment, outdoor concerts and socializing in the evenings, when even more political discussion and lobbying is likely to take place.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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