Norwegian farmers have proven themselves once again to be among the most powerful political lobbyists in the country. Now they have succeeded in blocking government efforts to reform agriculture and limit their subsidies, by gaining support from opposition parties and even the government’s own two support parties in an election year.
After weeks of noisy protests and another demonstration in Oslo, the farmers are now close to claiming victory in their demands for pay raises much higher than other workers have received. The small Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, which had an agreement to support the government but have been losing voter support, defected to the opposition bloc formed by the Labour and Center parties. Their defection forms a majority willing to allocate much more taxpayer support to the farmers than the NOK 410 million (USD 50 million) the government was willing to provide.
The Christian Democrats, worried about losing voter support in the rural areas of Norway, is already proposing nearly double the government’s offer, suggesting that NOK 790 million would “provide a better framework.” Line Henriette Hjemdal, the Christian Democrats’ spokesperson on agricultural policy, claimed her party “had always said that the government’s offer to the farmers wasn’t good enough.”
The non-socialist Liberals, whose voter support has fallen so low that the party risks losing representation in Parliament, also defended their defection to the resurgent left-center side of Norwegian politics, while Labour is dropping some principles in order to win voter support from rural districts. Labour earlier has gone along with government subsidy offers, which are hammered out after negotiations with the farmers’ two large lobbying organizations, but it now also claims that the conservative government coalition’s offer was insufficient. “We can’t accept policies formed by the far right side of Norwegian politics, after the Progress Party has had control of the agriculture ministry for the past four years,” Labour’s agricultural spokesman, Knut Storberget, said on state broadcaster NRK’s popular morning debate program Politisk kvarter Wednesday. The farmers broke off negotiations last month, appealing instead directly to the Parliament, which is now responding.
Harald Nesvik of the Progress Party claimed that Parliament’s pending concession to the farmers will now “just create chaos,” because it sends a signal to the farmers that they can simply break off negotiations with the government to get more money out of Parliament. Nesvik also said it will be interesting to see how Labour will justify allocating hundreds of millions more in taxpayer support to give farmers pay raises that are likely to be double those granted other work groups.
The farmers initially demanded raises of more than 9 percent, compared to the average 2.4 percent agreed by nearly all other labour organizations at a time of “moderation.” Nesvik noted that while other groups have logged pay hikes of around 7 percent over the past three years, the farmers have won 18 percent under the Progress Party’s administration yet still aren’t satisfied. Both Nesvik and Gunnar Gundersen of the Conservatives claim Parliament is now undermining the system set up to negotiate with the farmers.
“The farmers only want agricultural negotiations with themselves,” Nesvik all but shouted in an interview on NRK’s nightly nationwide newscast Tuesday. He also claimed Labour’s position “sends a bad signal to nurses, health care workers, police and many others who have been asked to show moderation in pay negotiations.”
The farmers’ leaders were pleased, meanwhile, that a majority in Parliament is now poised to give them more money, and that the government’s support parties have defected to the opposition. Merete Furuberg of Norsk Bonde- og Småbrukarlag, which promotes small farms, claimed the farmers’ initial demand for NOK 1.45 billion in support was moderate because the farmers argue they collectively earn less than other industries and want to narrow the alleged pay gap.
Now the Liberals, the Christians Democrats, the Center Party and Labour are expected to sit down and hash out a new, sweetened offer for the farmers, to be approved in Parliament before the summer recess. It may land at around 5 percent in terms of average pay hikes, which still won’t satisfy the farmers and, warn political commentators, may raise expectations for future settlements. The entire system for handling farmers’ demands also seems on the verge of collapse.
Furuberg and other farm lobbyists claim that the most important issue is ensuring food production in Norway, by keeping farmers motivated and farming. Agricultural production, however, has never been higher than it is now. It’s been enhanced through some of the government’s reforms that have succeeded, but they involve more centralization and economies of scale, which the farm lobbyists also resist.