UPDATED: Sylvi Listhaug of Norway’s most immigration-critical party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) will now take over as the country’s first-ever government minister in charge of asylum, immigration and integration issues. It’s arguably the most important of several ministerial changes announced by Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Wednesday, leaving Listhaug able to put Frp’s mark on immigration policy, possibly for years to come.
Listhaug’s appointment was confirmed by Solberg when the prime minister unveiled long-anticipated changes in her cabinet. Other changes, revealed after an extraordinary session of the Council of State at the Royal Palace, resulted in new political bosses for the ministries of labour, culture, fisheries, climate and the environment, agriculture and European Union relations.
“We all know that renewal is important,” Solberg said at a mid-morning press conference on Wednesday. She said her cabinet had been in place “for a long time,” longer than most with no changes in its make-up, and now it would get some new and younger members with new energy.
The changes come midway through the four-year term of Solberg’s minority coalition, and are aimed at giving both Solberg’s Conservative Party and the Progress Party a firmer grip on the biggest issues facing their government: Norway’s rising unemployment rate caused by the downturn in an oil-driven economy and the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, with more expected in the years ahead.
Conservatives take over labour ministry
The Conservatives have assumed control, for example, of the labour ministry, with former Oslo city politician Anniken Hauglie taking over the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. It had been headed by a Progress Party politician, Robert Eriksson, but the Conservatives clearly want control of employment issues heading into the next national elections in 2017.
Many of the other ministerial changes are viewed as strategic as well, and aimed at breathing new energy and coordination into Solberg’s government. Newspaper Aftenposten described tham as both smart and daring, with Frp’s outspoken deputy leader Per Sandberg given the post as fisheries minister in a move that may literally force him to refrain from making provocative remarks about integration and immigration. The current fisheries minister, Elisabeth Aspaker, will now take over as cabinet minister in charge of relations with the EU.
Linda Cathrine Hofstad Helleland of the Conservatives will take over as minister of culture, replacing Thorhild Widvey. Jon Georg Dale, who’s been a state secretary in the finance ministry, will become Norway’s new agriculture minister, replacing Listhaug. Solberg noted that he’ll also be the youngest of the ministers, at age 31.
Norway’s former EU minister, Vidar Helgesen of the Conservatives, will become minister in charge of climate and environmental issues, replacing Tine Sundtoft. That change was among the least expected, after Sundtoft’s triumphant return from the UN climate summit in Paris, where her contribution towards reaching agreement among nearly 200 countries was widely praised, also by the environmental movement. Solberg, however, told reporters at the mid-morning press conference that Sundtoft herself had asked to be relieved of her duties, after two years of near constant travel and long hours preparing for the Paris summit. Even though many wanted her to stay in her post, she can at least leave it on a successful note.
The changes also reflect the success and emerging solidarity of Solberg’s minority coalition, with the Conservatives and Progress Party cooperating as never before. There’s clearly more trust between them, and each party now will run areas that should further endear them to their own voters, and allow them to make their mark on government policy.
Solberg’s creation of the new ministerial post responsible for coordinating asylum, immigration and integration policy is widely viewed as the single most important development in her cabinet changes. Listhaug, who already has seriously challenged the powerful farming and food lobbies in Norway during her past two years as agriculture minister, will now tackle the thorny issues of immigration and integration at a time when Norway has been forced to unexpectedly give shelter to more than 30,000 refugees from the Middle East and Africa just in the past few months.
Listhaug’s post will, as predicted, be part of the justice ministry, which now will have two ministers. Listhaug will take over responsibility for issues that had been split between the justice ministry and the ministry in charge of children’s issues and social equality. Listhaug will thus work closely with Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, also from the Progress Party.