Norway’s Labour Party was already in crisis when it became enveloped by even more drama this week: Its deputy leader and high-profile veteran Trond Giske is the target of multiple complaints “of a sexual character,” party leader Jonas Gahr Støre confirmed Thursday night. The scandal has left Støre is fighting for his political future as well.
“He has a lot of explaining to do,” Støre said on NRK’s national nightly news Thursday after a meeting with Giske earlier in the day. It ended with Støre issuing a public rebuke of his deputy leader and declaring that Giske had “behaved in a manner that was worthy of criticism.”
Støre has also caught criticism, though, because neither he nor other top Labour officials made themselves immediately available for questions. While Giske later appeared on NRK’s evening national newscast to repeat stated apologies and try to defend himself, commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) accused Støre of “abdicating” his duties by refusing to reveal how Giske’s behaviour had been evaluated or what consequences it will have for Giske’s future in the Labour Party.
“I have given him clear criticism,” Støre said later on Thursday night just before he called in the Labour Party’s main board of directors for an extraordinary briefing at 9:30pm. “This is a serious matter.” Støre added that he had made it clear to Giske that he “must change his ways, and he understood that.” Giske’s behaviour, Støre admitted, was viewed as sexual harassment by those lodging complaints against him, and Støre is prepared that more complaints may be made as well.
Asked whether Giske should resign as deputy party leader, though, Støre said no, claiming the confidence shown in Giske at Labour’s last national convention still applied. “And I have to have confidence in the job he was chosen to do,” Støre told NRK. That may become a matter of debate in a party that produced Norway’s first female prime minister (Gro Harlem Brundtland) and has long prided itself on equality issues.
Støre confirmed that complaints made against Giske in the wake of the international “me-too” anti-harassment campaign “involve people who have experienced discomfort of a sexual character” in dealings with Giske. He appeared “as humble as it’s possible for him to be,” noted one commentator after he was grilled on NRK’s main evening newscast. “I’m very sorry,” Giske repeated, claiming he hadn’t fully understood the power of his role as a government minister when he, for example, made advances against a young woman studying to become a pastor in the state church at the time.
Giske claimed he already had “learned a lot” from the uproar around his behaviour, and thinks a lot of other men have learned from the “me-too” campaign as well. He seemed unaware of how offensive his behaviour towards women had been on occasion, but admitted “it was my fault” and “I’m so sorry.” He had not yet apologized directly to those who have lodged complaints against him, but said he was willing to do so.
Support from party fellows
Several Labour Party colleagues expressed support for Giske, with Terje Aasland, leader of the party in Telemark, calling his apology “strong and genuine.” Aasland also said he had “full confidence” in how Støre and Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng handled the issue. “It’s important that party members feel they’re safe in blowing the whistle.”
Jon Rolf Næss, Labour’s leader in Aust-Agder, said he had “full confidence in Giske” and so does Labour MP Ingrid Bjørketun Heggø: “There’s no reason for him to quit. I’ve never experienced any discomfort in his presence and I think the leadership handled this well.”
Not everybody agrees, with Alstadheim claiming Støre had not restored his authority. “Many people will try to protect Giske now,” Alstadheim predicted, “but this is all about how Labour is handling cases like this.” NRK’s own political commentator Magnus Takvam also believes Giske’s position both in the party and in public has been considerably weakened, while his exploits have damaged a party that already was deeply troubled after losing the September election and falling further in the polls since.