Sporting a deep tan, appearing relaxed and smiling broadly, Finance Minister Siv Jensen claims she’s looking forward to the next five weeks of leading her conservative Progress Party through this year’s tough parliamentary election campaign. Jensen needs to win back voters who ushered her party into government for the first time four years ago, but showed no signs of desperation during a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo on Thursday.
“We have a very good starting point now,” Jensen said, noting how “the Norwegian economy is recovering, unemployment is coming down and employment is going up.” She points to the incumbent government coalition’s “fiscal policy that’s actually working” and how monetary policy has also played an important role in helping Norway bounce back from the oil price collapse that rocked the country’s oil-fueled economy three years ago.
Statistics released late last week by state welfare agency NAV showed that the numbers of registered unemployed in Norway fell for the eighth month in a row in July. “Improvements have arrived all over the country, also in the counties that were hardest hit by the downturn in the oil industry,” said NAV director Sigrun Vågeng when releasing the latest numbers.
“I’m actually quite content,” Jensen said. “We (her party’s coalition with the Conservative Party) have survived these past four years (despite numerous predictions the coalition would collapse). We can show results, we have gained credibility.”
Now her job is to get that message out to voters during what she admits will be “a very close race.” Jensen’s Progress Party won government power after winning 16.3 percent of the vote in 2013. That was down from more than 20 percent in 2009 and 2005 when her Progress Party was bigger than the Conservatives. Jensen consistently referred to her party now as the “junior partner” in the current coalition but can claim that it has accomplished many of its goals these past four years: Taxes have been reduced, more oil money has been invested in welfare services and transport infrastructure and immigration policies have been tightened.
Yet Jensen’s party has tumbled in the polls, down to around 11-12 percent and even lower. She had no clear explanation as to why, claiming that “nothing has gone wrong” and that “I think we should be quite pleased” with the Progress Party’s performance and successes in government. As to whether voters are pleased, she claimed “we have a tendency to do quite well” when election day actually rolls around. “I don’t think we have lost so many voters,” she said.
She’ll be meeting as many people as possible over the next few weeks, taking off now for Larvik, Tønsberg and other areas of Vestfold where the party traditionally has been strong. She’ll be traveling around the country after that, both before and after Arendalsuka, a week of debates and appearances in the coastal city of Arendal in mid-August. “The most exciting, for me, is meeting lots of people,” Jensen said. “That actually makes me happy, and gives me energy.”
Her priorities are to promote more tax cuts, continued investment in infrastructure and health care, and restrictive immigration policy, while also defending the importance of Norway’s oil and gas industry for the economy. She wasn’t impressed by a new survey showing that many voters think the climate is more important than oil: Fully 44 percent of Norwegians questioned are willing to limit oil activity in order to protect the environment and stem climate change. That’s more than those who think oil is more important (42 percent) while 15 percent were unsure.
Jensen was clearly skeptical: “We need to see a trend towards that (type of thinking) over time. I think it’s very important for Norway to continue to be an oil and gas producer. We need to be a predictable and stable supplier.”
Some argue that the party itself is neither predictable nor stable, with various high-profile party members often making statements seemingly at odds with their own government’s policy. Christian Tybring-Gjedde, for example, recently claimed that Norway should drop its economic sanctions against Russia. Jensen suggested he’d been misquoted and that her government’s policy that enforces the EU’s and US’ sanctions “has not changed.” Nor does Jensen see any “mismatch” between her party’s decision last spring to finally allow dual citizenship in Norway, while the paty’s high-profile immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug, wants to tighten citizenship requirements.
Jensen insisted that her party hasn’t changed while in government, after 40 years in opposition. “Our policy hasn’t changed, our ideology hasn’t changed,” she said. Instead of criticizing the government as she’s always done in the past before an election, though, she now stresses that “we need to reflect on how lucky we are in Norway.” Since she’s now part of an incumbent government her own tune has changed: “I think we have done well.” She has to hope the voters will think so, too.