Calls rise to register lobbyists

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Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s new government minister in charge of agriculture and food, won’t have to reveal her list of clients in her previous job at public relations firm First House. Calls keep rising, tough, for a new regulation that would prod more openness by forcing all lobbyists to register themselves.

New Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug posed for photos recently on her parents' farm in western Norway, Lindseth Gard. She's faced a lot of criticism from farmers and food producers who fear her plans to reform agricultural policy and liberalize markets. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet/Olav Skjedstad/Romsdals Budstikke

New Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug posed for photos recently on her parents’ farm in western Norway, Lindseth Gard. She’s faced a lot of pressure from farmers and food producers who fear her plans to reform protectionist agricultural policy and liberalize tightly controlled markets, and from media and politicians who want to know who she worked for at PR firm First House. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet/Olav Skjedstad/Romsdals Budstikke

Both the leadership of the parliament (Stortinget) and the government are working on new rules for registers of all those seeing to influence legislation through the parliament or the ministries. The registers would likely include information on who the lobbyists visited, which issues were discussed and who the lobbyist represents.

The proposals aren’t new, but the Liberal Party (Venstre) has stepped up its own efforts to establish a lobbyist register, reports newspaper Dagsavisen. The Socialist Left party (SV) has also proposed such registers, but both parties have been voted down by a majority in parliament. Now they may have a majority in favour, after neither the Progress Party, Labour or the Christian Democrats would dismiss the possibility of voting for a register similar to what the European Union (EU) already has. Government ministers going into public relations are often subject to quarantine, and there also are proposals for a new law requiring disclosure of client lists in future ministerial appointments.

Weeks of controversy
The renewed efforts to establish a register come after weeks of controversy over who Listhaug served during her time at First House. She’s the first government minister to come straight from a public relations firm, and even though many of her predecessors have come from the farmers’ own powerful lobbying organizations, skeptical opposition politicians and Norwegian media outlets have clamoured for release of Listhaug’s client list.

She had immediately turned it over to legal experts within the ministry, so that they’d be able to evaluate any potential conflicts of interest, but she refused to disclose it publicly because of confidentiality statements she’d signed at First House. The firm itself also refused to allow her to release the list, or release it themselves, again claiming client confidentially agreements.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg asked for yet another evaluation of whether the government could disclose the client list anyway. On Wednesday Solberg said Listhaug would be allowed to keep the list out of the public purview, disappointing opposition politicians over what they call a lack of openness.

No immediate tariff reversal
Listhaug has withstood the pressure and consistently said she just wants to work towards reforming Norway’s highly regulated agriculture and food production. She has already backed away, though, from campaign promises to immediately roll back the higher import tariffs placed on cheese and meat last year to protect Norwegian farmers by hindering cheaper imports.

Listhaug said that both her Progress Party and the Conservatives “have been clear that we want to reverse the cheese tariff,” but it’s part of this year’s contract between the state and the farmers and thus difficult to break until it expires next July.

She also noted that “there are many and varied interests involved,” from the EU which has blasted the tariffs to the farmers, food producers and consumers. She said the government “needs more time” to balance the interests before moving forward with reforms.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund