Parliament opens for new debate

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Norway’s King Harald V opened the 159th session of Parliament on Thursday in a traditionally formal and ceremonious style that’s set to give way to political bickering and tough battles over programs and funding. It’s the first full session pitting Norway’s conservative minority government and its first state budget against a Labour-led opposition that’s keen to regain power.

King Harald V read the government's speech standing as he formally opened Parliament on Thursday. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/Scanpix

King Harald V read the government’s speech standing as he formally opened Parliament on Thursday. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/Scanpix

The 77-year-old monarch, wearing his gala uniform and backed by Queen Sonja and his son, Crown Prince Haakon, stood once again as he delivered the government’s trontale, literally “speech from the throne.” In it, the government signaled that it will be proposing several reforms during the coming session, most notably within the health care sector. The government wants the state, for example, to fund not only national health and the hospital system but also care for the elderly.

“The government will arrange for a pilot program of state financing of elder care,” the king read, a program that may transfer funding of nursing homes from local governments to the state. The government formed by the Conservative Party and the Progress Party claimed the goal, along with its other proposed reforms, is to “renew, simplify and improve” Norway’s social welfare state.

“Norway is in a state of change,” the king read on behalf of the government, adding that the population is steadily growing and getting older. “Oil activity will no longer be the motor of our economic growth, and we must adjust to whatever the earth tolerates in terms of carbon emissions.”

The government thus signaled that climate issues will be a priority as will welfare reform aimed at accommodating record numbers of retirees and “new generations that will make new demands on the welfare system.”

Waiting in the wings to pounce on the conservative government’s initiatives are not only Labour but all the small parties in Parliament that can tip the balance in voting on various issues. The government has agreements with two of them, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, but no firm guarantees that they’ll follow through with their support.

Even though the thorny issue of mounting a state financial guarantee for an expensive Winter Olympics was solved when the Conservatives halted the entire project Wednesday evening, there are plenty of other issues bound to spark debate. “The state budget will overshadow most everything,” Harald Tom Nesvik, parliamentary leader for the Progress Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). It will be presented next week for the first time by his party’s leader, Siv Jensen, who won the post of Finance Minister after last autumn’s election.

The king wasn’t the only one speaking during the ceremonial opening of Parliament, which featured a full house of MPs, government ministers and dignitaries unusually dressed up for the occasion. The youngest member of the government traditionally delivers the government’s report of its past (and first) year in office, so the honour fell on Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, wearing a national folk costume (bunad) and speaking in nynorsk.

Both speeches were then handed over to the President of the Parliament, who also was wearing a bunad, before the king and queen left the building and were driven back to the palace in a shiny old Lincoln Continental convertible. Parliamentary debate over the government’s address begins next week.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund