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Monday, June 24, 2024

Transparency calls get even louder

Norwegians have begun taking to the streets with their growing demands for more transparency, within business and finance, government and even sports organizations and the royal family. Their demands follow a string of corruption cases at some of Norway’s biggest companies, questionable use of public funds by athletics officials and widespread disgust over disclosures of tax haven use by Norway’s biggest bank.

Activist Erik Johan Egenes address demonstrators outside the Parliament on Monday evening, as they called for a ban on oil fund operations in tax havens. Public demands for far more transparency are now louder than ever before. PHOTO: Attac Norge
Activist Erik Johan Egenes address demonstrators outside the Parliament on Monday evening, as they called for a ban on oil fund operations in tax havens. Public demands for far more transparency are now louder than ever before. PHOTO: Attac Norge

The use of tax havens by the partially state-owned bank DNB and Norway’s own state pension fund known as the “oil fund” has particularly struck a nerve. On Monday evening, representatives of more than 40 organizations and most of Norway’s major political parties demonstrated in front of the Norwegian Parliament, demanding that the managers of the oil fund at Norway’s central bank stop, for example, using Luxembourg as an operating base. Politicians from both Labour and the Conservatives, the Greens Party and the Christian Democrats were demonstrating along with activists from organizations such as Attac Norge, Changemaker, Greenpeace Norge, Framtiden i Våre Hender (The Future in Our Hands), Redd Barna (Save the Children), the church’s aid organization Kirkens Nødhjelp and Norsk Folkehjelp (Norwegian People’s Aid).

“It’s about time to make some noise about this in Norway, too,” Benedikte Pryneid Hansen, the leader of Attac Norge and organizer of the demonstration, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Many people are angry, and we must show our opposition.” The anger has grown following newspaper Aftenposten’s reports on DNB’ tax haven use, revealed in the “Panama Papers” probe set off by documents leaked from a law firm in Panama City.

Government officials at both ends of the political spectrum seem to be backing the calls for disclosure. In the past week alone, Trade Minister Monica Mæland has been demanding answers from DNB over how and why the bank could make it possible for wealthy customers to avoid taxes through its operation in Luxembourg. She sent 17 more questions to DNB’s board late Tuesday, after DNB’s chief executive Rune Bjerke had attempted to account for the operation but failed to satisfy Mæland.

Trade Minister Monica Mæland, faced with questions from the parliament's disciplinary committee over Hydro's involvement in Tajikistan, now has some questions of her own for Hydro's management and board. PHOTO: Næringsdepartementet
Trade Minister Monica Mæland has had her hands full dealing with cases of corruption within Norwegian companies and use of tax havens by Norway’s biggest bank. She’s demanding more accountability, as is her fellow minister Linda Hofstad Helleland. PHOTO: Næringsdepartementet

Mæland and the Parliament’s disciplinary committee have also been demanding far more transparency and accountability from companies like Yara, Telenor, Hydro and Statoil, all of which have been involved in the payment of alleged bribes in various international business deals. The suspected bribes were also paid to so-called “postbox-” or “brassplate-” companies based in tax havens like Guernsey, the British Virgin Islands and Gibraltar. Mæland is particularly reminding the companies’ boards of directors to respect the state’s anti-corruption laws, and since she’s responsible for the state’s major shareholdings in the companies, she has the clout to do so.

Sports under scrutiny, too
While Mæland was demanding more answers from DNB on Tuesday, her government colleague Linda Hofstad Helleland was doing the same in her effort to prod more openness around Norway’s national sports federation (Norsk Idrettsforbund, NIF). As government minister in charge of culture and sports, Helleland has been demanding more accountability from Norway’s top sports bureaucrats, not least at the football federation. All the sports organizations receive large amounts of state funding every year and Helleland felt forced to insist, in a sharp letter sent to NIF boss Tom Tvedt, that they make public all their receipts for travel, meals, entertainment and other expenses.

“Organized athletics in Norway is a large democratic movement that’s supposed to steer itself,” Helleland told news bureau NTB. “That obligates (athletics bosses) to show full openness around the considerable share of taxpayers’ money that they are granted every year. Since that hasn’t happened so far, I had to step in. I saw no other way.”

Her move follows a particularly turbulent annual meeting of Norway’s football federation (NFF), at which football bosses were harshly criticized for some expensive globetrotting. While two NIF leaders reportedly spent NOK 160,000 (USD 19,500) on a trip to Los Angeles and Malaysia, local athletics organizations rely on volunteer help and are out selling waffles to finance everything from uniforms to league play. As Helleland repeated on Tuesday’s national nightly newscast Dagsrevyen: “When we (she and the sports officials) travel to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, I’ll have to turn over all my receipts for public scrutiny, but they haven’t had to.” Now they will.

Shunning secrecy
Some commentators argue it’s the sheer secrecy and refusals to turn over receipts that have upset Norwegians the most, not perhaps the receipts themselves. “Most folks, both journalists and others, think it’s okay for the president of the athletics association, Tom Tvedt, to fly in Business Class when he travels to Malaysia,” wrote Aftenposten’s commentator Ola Bernhus, noting that Tvedt is a large man, nearly two meters tall. Bernhus also argued that it’s okay for the sports officials to stay at nice hotels, and even invite people they’re meeting to nice lunches. Refusing to disclose their receipts, however, only raises suspicions that they’re living the high life at the expense of taxpayers.

“I have nothing to hide,” Tvedt said, while defending his decision to fly not Business Class but “Premium Economy” on the long flight to Malaysia. He now promises to meet the government minister’s demands: “I think we’re living in a society  that must become more transparent, and sports is a big part of that. I think we’ll be opening up in others areas, too.”

The new president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, is also a Freemason, and that's suddenly raised some concern. PHOTO: Høyre
The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, has admitted that he failed to disclose his share holdings and has now done so. PHOTO: Høyre

So is the Royal Palace, after ongoing demands for more financial disclosure regarding royal expenditures, and this week even the President of the Parliament had to admit that he hadn’t followed disclosure rules closely enough regarding his own personal shareholdings. Olemic Thommessen of the Conservative Party, whose position ranks second only to King Harald’s, was also promising to do better, as calls went out for more transparency among politicians’ economic interests.

Newspaper Dagbladet had reported how Thommessen has stock in several large companies including Statoil, DNB and Orkla. All told, the shares are valued at NOK 365,500 and Thommessen hadn’t registered them with the Parliament, despite rules that holdings worth more than NOK 90,000 must be declared.

“Today I have registered my shares in the following companies: Statoil, 800 shares worth NOK 101,200, DNB, 1,222 shares worth NOK 118,000 and Orkla, 2,000 shares worth NOK 143,300,” Thommessen wrote in an email to Dagbladet. Berglund



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