The canons were fired from Oslo’s Akershus Fortress at precisely noon on Monday, to celebrate Queen Sonja’s 79th birthday on the 4th of July. Not everyone is celebrating, however, as criticism grows over the royal family’s financial secrecy and the Royal Palace staff’s refusal to respond to calls for more openness.
The palace staff even refused to say where the queen was spending her birthday, telling news bureau NTB only that the day was being celebrated privately. After another annual round of public appearances in May and June, the royals have now mostly retreated for summer holidays that also are kept secret, although the queen usually spends time in July at her family’s summer home on the island of Tjøme, southwest of Oslo, while the king goes sailing.
It’s unlikely Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit will repeat last year’s controversial decision to spend holidays on board the expensive yacht of a friend who’s also been kept secret. The couple caught massive criticism for taking their family on board what was called an environmentally unfriendly luxury yacht in the Mediterranean while refugees were risking their lives on inflatable boats not far away and often drowning.
The royal yacht Norge, which just carried Queen Sonja and King Harald down the Norwegian coast as they celebrated 25 years of their reign, was decked out on Monday with festive maritime flags to celebrate the queen’s birthday, idle at its berth at Tjuvholmen in Oslo. Many of the expenses for its operation and maintenance, meanwhile, reportedly are covered under the state defense budget and not borne by the royals or their own budgets.
‘Their own worst enemy’
And that’s part of what’s sparking more criticism about the royals, who still have a high popularity rating in Norway but who regularly come under fire by republican-oriented politicians and even pro-monarchy commentators. The royals, wrote commentator Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen over the weekend, are about to become their own worst enemy.
Newspaper Dagbladet has been digging into the royal finances and state budgets for months, trying to get an accurate picture of what the monarchy really costs Norwegian taxpayers. Defenders of the monarchy often claim that it doesn’t cost much more than presidency would, and that Norway’s royals don’t live a life of luxury or extravagance. That may not be true, according to a report from 2002 that now is getting new exposure in the media.
According to Dagsavisen, the report was written for a public royal commission (Slottsutvalget) and reveals a long tradition of holding the so-called apanasje (an annual state grant for royals) artificially low and rather transferring money to them “via other channels.” The report revealed how palace staff used the expression “camoflauged extras” for expenses that were trasferred to and covered by other parts of the state budget.
“The most important motivation was to achieve real growth in funding (for the royals) without it being seen too much,” states the report. “It was important to have political consideration, in order to avoid a lot of debate and negative attention around the royal house. Even though the royal family has always had a strong position among the people. public opinion has always been criticial towards expenses that are too high, whether in the apanage or at the palace.”
State financing of private projects
Dagbladet has since also uncovered ways in which the royals use state money for private projects. Instead of tapping their own apanage, they let employees paid by the state conduct maintenance or upgrade their private property, reported Dagbladet. In some cases, properties sold have generated substantial gains, that have gone “straight into the pocket of the crown prince,” wrote Ulstein. “If (Prime Minister) Erna Solberg had done as the king and crown prince, she would have had the Office of the Prime Minister renovating her hytte during their work hours, while their salaries are paid by the state. That would be a huge scandal. But in reality, that’s just what the royals are doing.”
Jan Tore Sanner, the government minister in charge of administration, responded that the royal practice of breaking such rules must stop and changed the rules, instead of ordering a state audit to investigate actual royal costs. “It’s time for the palace to play all its cards on the table,” Ulstein wrote.
She added that a majority of Norwegians want to retain the monarchy and are more than willing to pay for it, but it reflects badly on the government’s and monarchy’s own self-confidence in the institution when they “try to present their use of (public) money as less than what it is, for fear of what the people will think.” If that fear is valid, wrote Ulstein, the royal family’s legitimacy is in reality built upon hidden rule violations and erroneous financial information.