Oslo’s two top political leaders have been all but run over in recent days by critics who view them as little more than hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach. While Raymond Johansen, Marianne Borge and their city government colleagues are making it increasingly difficult and expensive to drive private vehicles in the city center, they’ve been chauffeured around in plush Audi A8 limousines.
Caught in the act by newspaper VG late last week, while having his car door held open for him by his chauffeur, Johansen of the Labour Party is now suggesting the political bosses may change their ways. He claims he has asked for a new evaluation of the city’s so-called “car service” for political leaders, and perhaps a switch to electric cars.
Johansen claims the city leaders started being driven around town in 2012, not long after twin terrorist attacks in Oslo. He says it was launched for security reasons, while former Mayor Fabian Stang of the Conservative Party has said it was more a matter of convenience. Stang had such a hectic and tight schedule that he needed to have a car ready to cart him around, when he couldn’t walk or bicycle himself.
Whatever the reason, the limo service has continued for both Johansen and Stang’s successor as mayor, Marianne Borgen of the Socialist Left party (SV). The biggest, and most embarrassing, problem for them is how it collides head on with all the environmental initiatives that their political leadership is forcing upon Oslo residents. In the past few months, hundreds of parking places have been removed and replaced by bicycle lanes, parking fees have been raised and the time allowed to park on city streets has been reduced, causing major challenges for residents who don’t have garages and rely on street parking. They’ve been feeling bullied, but city government coalition partner Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the Greens Party (MCG) is determined to also push through a measure to make the entire city center car-free within the next few years.
That makes it difficult for Borgen and Johansen to justify how it’s okay for them to drive around in “gas-guzzlers” that critics also point out have been equipped with studded tires this winter. Everyone else has to pay special fees to use studded tires, called piggdekk, because of the air pollution they create by stirring up dust and wearing down the asphalt on roads. Berg even wants to ban driving on days when air pollution is high.
Johansen, a former plumber, was already being accused of becoming a bit high and mighty in his new job because he wanted to formally change the name of the city government from byråd to byregjering, more like the term used for the national government (regjeringen). That was rejected on Monday by the state ministry in charge of municipalitise and now Johansen is headed for another defeat over his offensive Audi A8.
“Raymond is a down-to-earth and nice guy,” Frode Jacobsen, the head of the Labour Party’s Oslo chapter, told news bureau NTB in Johansen’s defense. “He isn’t the one who chose this car.” The man who lost to Johansen in the last election also defended the car program that he’d used, too. “I can understand that many think this (the limo) is hard to accept,” Stian Berger Røsland, now an attorney in private practice, told NTB. “But when you can’t take the metro without risking that someone will demand to debate issues with you, or start yelling at you while you’re standing there with your kids, and when driving a car yourself isn’t always an option, the program they have at City Hall can be important in getting your job done.”
Overshadowed new metro station opening
Ironically enough, the criticism and attention around Johansen’s and Borgen’s cars all but overshadowed their ceremonical opening of a new metro station in Oslo on Sunday. Johansen ended up having to field questions and defend his limo riding, and that’s when he suggested it may be scrapped.
“I have asked the city’s car service management to make a concrete evaluation of whether there are lower-emission cars on the market that would still satisfy their demands for security,” Johansen told state broadcaster NRK. “We also need to review the contracts we have.” Johansen, who lives in the urban valley of Groruddalen on Oslo’s northeast side, admitted he also has used the limo service for getting back to forth to work, also to a lady-friend’s home in the Frogner district.
It wasn’t a good week for the city government that took over last fall. Not only have its parties lost support in public opinion polls, the top city politician in charge of elder care and health issues has asked even the private nursing homes the city uses to cut staffing to lower costs. Inga Marte Thorkildsen of SV was supposed to be a champion of more “warm hands” in the public health care sector, not less, but blames the cuts on budget deficits created by the former government. Both Labour and SV are controversially imposing a new property tax on Oslo residents, with its revenues to be earmarked for nursing home staff. The cuts suggest any new hires may instead only reverse the cuts.