The Norwegian Labour Party’s New Year is beginning where the old one ended, in crisis. Even before Labour bosses gathered for an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to decide how to handle sexual harassment complaints against their deputy leader Trond Giske, Giske had already been “relieved” of his duties. Now he’s fighting back.
Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre announced on New Year’s night that Giske was being “relieved as deputy leader for an indefinite period.”
Støre confirmed that Labour’s main board of directors would be meeting Tuesday afternoon “to discuss the situation tied to complaints against deputy leader Trond Giske.” Norwegian media have referred to the gathering as a “crisis meeting” that’s likely to decide Giske’s fate, as complaints of his bad behaviour, sexual harassment and tough treatment of state employees pile up.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), for example, reported just before the New Year’s weekend that one of Giske’s former secretaries reported “there were no limits to what he demanded of us.” She claimed she ended up becoming afraid of him, because of how irritated he became when she started refusing to run so many of his private errands, from grocery shopping to laundry, or trying to obtain free tickets for a summer music festival.
The complaint comes in addition to others of a more “sexual character,” as Støre described them, some of which are tied to incidents as late as this year. While some of Giske’s alleged harassment occurred during his eight years as both culture and trade minister in Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s government, from 2005 to 2013, DN reported on three more complaints from 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Støre wrote in a new press release from the embattled party Monday night that “in light of the demanding situation the party is in, and the character of the issues, Trond Giske and I have agreed that he be relieved of his duties as deputy leader for an indefinite period.” Giske is already on sick leave because of the pressure he’s been under in recent weeks.
Støre would not comment further on Giske’s suspension Monday night but agreed to face questions Tuesday morning on state broadcaster NRK’s political debate program Politisk kvarter. Støre is under huge pressure himself, for failing to tackle an alleged culture of harassment in the very party that’s supposed to champion workers and equality. Commentators have claimed Støre hasn’t been fully aware of power plays and a rough culture within Labour, while others fear Støre can be “manipulated” by Giske, who has his supporters within Labour who allegedly have condoned or overlooked his behaviour for years.
Giske himself fought back Monday night against what he called “groundless claims” and leaks to the media. He claimed that he was the one who told both Støre and Labour’s top administrator, party secretary Kjersti Stenseng, that it had become impossible for him to carry out his duties as Labour’s deputy leader given the current situation.
He suggested that his suspension came at his request, not as any punitive action from Støre. “In cooperation with the party leader, I want to withdraw from this assignment for an indefinite period,” Giske wrote. “I will also report this in a letter to the board.”
Giske apologized again for having generated “discomfort and problems” and claimed they were caused by his “earlier behaviour.” He repeated that he has made mistakes and that he wasn’t always fully conscious of the powerful role he held as a government minister.
“I have great respect for those who are sharing their stories,” he claimed. “All their complaints shall be given correct and thorough treatment.”
But then his tone changed, with him demanding that he also be allowed to put forth his version of events. He wrote that “several groundless and false complaints” have been lodged “with claims and descriptions that I strongly refute.” He also claims that such “false complaints” have also been “systematically leaked to the media, serious claims have been published based on anonymous sources, commented upon as the truth and spread in social media. This has made my situation and others’ very difficult, and also undermines security for the real whistle-blowers.”
Giske refused to elaborate or answer questions from media Monday night. Nor was Stenseng, who’s been viewed as among Giske’s supporters, available for comment.
‘Giske is a fighter’
Commentators immediately claimed that Giske’s reaction Monday night shows that he’s willing to fight to regain credibility and retain his position as a top Labour Party politician. “This is a very powerful reaction to the claims about his behaviour,” said Magnus Takvam, politial commentator for NRK. “This is no humble Giske we’re seeing here.” He added that Giske’s reaction won’t dampen the conflict level in the party, but rather escalate it against those who have criticized him.
Tone Sofie Aglen, political editor of Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen, agreed. She called Giske “a fighter” who’s now willing to battle for his political life. “It’s better for him to be ‘relieved’ of duties now, than to sit and wait for the the board to ask him to step aside,” Aglen told NRK.
Others within Labour want Giske’s suspension to be made permanent. “This (Giske’s being ‘relieved’ of his duties) is a correct move, but it should be a permanent solution,” said the leader of Labour’s women’s network in Sogn og Fjordane, Siri Sandvik. “I don’t think Labour can have a deputy leader who’s been accused of this type of behaviour.”
She’s far from alone. Lina Oma, leader of one of Oslo’s bastions of Labour Party power, wrote on Facebook herself that she knows why it had been so “embarrassingly quiet” in the party as the drama around Giske rose before Christmas. “It’s because no one has done their job. Jens (Stoltenberg) has not done his job (as party leader and prime minister when Giske was a minister). Jonas (Gahr Støre) has not done his job. Anniken (Huitfeldt), leader of the Labour Party’s national women’s network, has not done her job. Raymond (Johansen), former party secretary, has not done his job. We others in the organization have not done our jobs. We have quietly accepted the elephant in the room. I’m sick of bureaucratic nonsense, preaching about power struggles and branches of the party. This is about what should have been said long ago: The Labour Party cannot have a deputy leader who thinks with the wrong head.”
Støre has also said that he fears confidence in the party’s leadership as a whole has been weakened by the Giske case. He claims he’s listening to the whistle-blowers, but also to Giske. If the board and Støre turn against Giske, however, they can only ask him to resign his posts. Only a new vote at a national meeting can fire him.