NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s launch of an historic new government coalition this week ended up being overshadowed by complaints filed in the wake of the international “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment. Both her party and both her coalition partners have been targeted, along with the opposition Labour Party, prompting some to complain that the complaints are adversely affecting all political work in Norway at present.
Solberg even had to address some of the complaints in special remarks following what was supposed to be a triumphant press conference to introduce a government coalition led, for the first time, by three female non-socialist party leaders from her Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberal Party.
Her conservative coalition was expanded and restructured to take in five new government ministers. Five others were reassigned to lead different ministries and four ministers from the Conservatives and Progress had to leave to make room for replacements from the Liberal Party after it joined the coalition. Fully half of the 20 ministers in Solberg’s newly expanded government coalition are women, and they represent every part of the country.
The make-up of Solberg’s new coalition also reflects government priorities and clear efforts to minimize conflicts among coalition members. Progress, for example, remains in control of key ministries dealing with state finances, transport, justice and immigration while also gaining a new ministry devoted to elder care. They also retained agriculture, which they’re striving to reform, fisheries and oil and energy. The Liberals were put in charge of culture, higher education and, perhaps most importantly, climate and the environment. The Conservatives, the biggest of the three parties, remain in control of the foreign and defense ministries, business and trade, health, primary education, labour, equality issues and, with Solberg as Prime Minister, the government itself.
With more attention on elder care, climate issues, foreign aid and integration issues, Solberg clearly has tried to provide important outlets for her coalition members and prod them into getting along and finding compromises when needed. Several political commentators quickly picked up on how Solberg turned over the entire justice ministry to the Progress Party’s controversial former minister in charge of immigration and integration, Sylvi Listhaug, while also assigning her a new state secretary from the Liberal Party (Sveinung Rotevatn) who’s been critical of Listhaug’s strict immigration policy. Some claimed Rotevatn was placed in Listhaug’s ministry to “keen an eye on her,” while others think they’ll be able to argue and settle their differences internally before reaching a public compromise on thorny problems.
Solberg’s new government composition won generally favourable reviews, with the exception of criticism that it contains no ministers with minority background. Several thought Abid Raja of the Liberal Party, a high-profile Member of Parliament who’s a lawyer by profession of Pakistani descent, would become a minister but he was named the Liberals’ finance policy spokesman instead in charge of budget negotiations. Raja is also a member of the parliament’s leadership and sits on its foreign affairs and defense committee. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said it was mostly a “coincidence” that there were no ethnic minorities in Solberg’s team of 10 women and 10 men who also needed to represent all areas of the country. “We work very hard to recruit minorities” to political work, she said on national radio Friday morning, “and to generate diversity. It takes time.”
Sexual harassment stole the spotlight
Meanwhile, much of the attention to the newly expanded coalition itself ended up being shifted back to the sexual harassment complaints currently flying within all three parties:
*** The Conservatives have received three new complaints since Tuesday against politicians, bringing its total to 18, 10 of which are directed at the former leader of the party’s youth organization, Unge Høyre, Kristian Tonning Riise. He felt compelled to resign his top post at Unge Høyre but remains a Member of Parliament. He has since gone out on sick leave.
Solberg made it clear she was upset not only about the complaints but also that she hadn’t been informed about them or the serious nature of them. She regretted having initially called the complaints “sad, both for Kristian and for Høyre” without expressing sympathy for those offended by Riise and his “behaviour that is not in line” with the party’s standards. “I have said things I wish I hadn’t,” Solberg said, given what she now knows about the complaints.
*** The Progress Party has been shaken by revelations that the deputy leader of its parliamentary delegations and justice policy spokesman, Ulf Leirstein, had sent pornographic photos to young male party members, using the parliament’s email system. Leirstein also proposed group sex with fellow party members, including at least one young boy, and has since withdrawn from all positions of authority within the party. He’s also been removed from the justice committee but, like Riise, remains an MP for the rest of his elected term in office.
*** The Liberal Party’s own leader, Trine Skei Grande, has also been the target of what she calls “vicious rumours” about her conduct with a younger male party member at a social event nearly 10 years ago. He was 17 at the time, she was in her late 30s, and she felt compelled to tell newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week that “I’m no abuser.”
Both had initially refused to comment, but the now-26-year-old man involved told newspaper VG on Thursday that he objected to her version that they were all at a party with friends and that he had “taken her behind a house and hopped on top of her.” He contends they had both been drinking, they went off together and had sex outdoors in a hayfield, “voluntarily” for both of them. “That’s all I want to say publicly, but if the prime minister wants to hear my version, I’ll of course offer it,” he told VG. Solberg has declined to reveal what Grande told her about the incident before appointing her as minister of culture in the new government. “I have made my evaluation of what I’ve been told and I think she (Grande) will be an excellent culture minister,” Solberg said on NRK’s debate program Debatten Thursday evening.
Opposition parties struggling as well
While scandal rolls through the three government parties, opposition parties are dealing with their own cases as well. The Labour Party has arguably suffered the most, after one of its top politicians, Trond Giske, became the target of a string of complaints of sexual harassment extending back over many years. He has since apologized, lost all his party posts, remains the subject of an investigation within the party and was “relieved of other duties” and stripped of his powerful position as finance policy spokesman as well. He was moved off the finance committee this week and extended his current sick leave by another two weeks.
Harassment complaints have also been filed in most other political parties in Parliament, prompting many politicians to wish they could just get back to the business of debating and forming policy. Helge André Njåstad of the Progress Party told newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday that all the sexual harassment cases are overshadowing not only the new government but “our political work” as a whole. He also doesn’t feel the scandals are representative of politicians as a whole, and worries about a public loss of confidence in political leaders that’s traditionally has been high in Norway.
“I don’t think most of us recognize the picture of us that’s been painted in recent months,” Njåstad said. He now hopes any remaining “skeletons in the closet” will fall out and be dealt with during “this phase of MeToo” so that politicians can return to a “normal” situation.
“Everything that’s happened in the past should come forward now, there’s no reason for anyone to sit on things that have made them feel uncomfortable,” Njåstad told Dagsavisen. “Now there’s this window to bring everything to light and handle it, and of course we’ll deal with other cases that come up in the future. It would just be nice to be finished with things that happened in the past … things popping up all the time doesn’t serve the interests of politics.” Njåstad, now serving his second term as a Member of Parliament, hopes all the complaints won’t discourage others from becoming politically involved.
Solberg clearly wants to move on as well. She conceded to reporters on Wednesday that the MeToo cases “have affected our work, but at the same time we have to concentrate most on our main project, to create a new government.”