Solberg ready to ‘escape’ to Davos

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UPDATED: Prime Minister Erna Solberg was flying off to Davos on Monday, for three days of meetings with international business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum. It was likely to be a relief from weeks of dealing with sexual harassment complaints within her Conservative Party and her newly expanded government. Late Monday came word that police will investigate some of the complaints.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg won’t be escaping snow when she travels to the World Economic Forum in Davos, but she will have a break from sexual harassment trouble within her party and government. PHOTO: Høyre

On Sunday night, Solberg felt compelled to hold yet another press conference, this time to report that her party has received 21 complaints involving 12 Conservative Party members and politicians just since January 11. Ten of them involve the young and newly elected Member of Parliament Kristian Tonning Riise, who felt compelled himself to resign as leader of the party’s youth organization earlier this month.

Now it’s emerged that complaints against Riise go back as far as 2013 and that they weren’t formally reported nor were they brought to Solberg’s attention. She said on national radio Monday morning, during another appearance on NRK’s debate program Politisk kvarter, that Riise could never have been re-elected as leader of the youth organization (Unge Høyre) nor as an MP if she had received information about his alleged behaviour in 2013-2014.

“No, I don’t think he could have been either at that point in time,” said Solberg, whose introduction of an expanded government last week was overshadowed by sexual harassment complaints and issues. “There were only a few people who knew or had heard about a warning in 2013-2014 tied to some specific cases. We have already said that we should have reacted, and that the cases should have been investigated more closely.”

Now they will. NRK reported late Monday afternoon that the state prosecutor has asked police to look into the complaints against Riise, who responded that he’s glad his case will be examined “thoroughly and objectively.”

‘Clean-up’ effort underway
She’s made it clear that she’s unhappy and upset that she wasn’t told about what she and the party now admit were “signals” that went unheeded. “We have no good clarification as to why, because someone should have reacted,” Solberg said on the debate program. “We’re sorry that didn’t happen.”

Asked whether it might have been because the party sought to protect Riise as an emerging political talent, Solberg said she “had no indications of that, but it can be because various people sat with various information from specific cases and didn’t see the whole picture.”

Solberg announced a major “clean-up” effort within the party that will include new measures to fight sexual harassment. The party already has had “guidelines” and procedures for handling complaints, but they didn’t work in the Riise case. “The party has not viewed various concerns and warnings in connection with one another, and didn’t manage to halt behaviour that should have been stopped much earlier,” said John-Ragnar Aarset, secretary general of the Conservative Party (Høyre). “The most important thing now is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

New systems
From now on, all warnings and complaints involving party members will be registered in an independent and impartial system, the secretary general will be made aware of them, an introduction program for new officials within Høyre and Unge Høyre will be improved, alcohol consumption at party events will be reviewed, and consciousness of ethical guidelines will be raised. Henrik Syse, longtime member of the Conservatives who sits on the Norwegian Nobel Committee, will also lead a commission to evaluate the complaints filed since Riise’s resignation as leader of Unge Høyre.

Riise remains an MP but is currently on sick leave because of the mental stress tied to the complaints swirling around him. One of them has been described as sex with a drunk 16-year-old girl against her will at a youth organization event, but Riise denied the claim to newspaper Klassekampen. “I have confirmed that we had sex and that we both had been drinking alcohol,” Riise wrote in a text message to Klassekampen. “That should never have happened and I apologize.” He claimed, however, that he “didn’t recognize” the situation as the girl described it to newspaper Aftenposten. He declined further comment.

Davos diversion
Solberg will be able to deal with completely different issues in Davos this week, and get back to forming policy instead of policing the sexual proclivities of party members and others tied to her government. News bureau NTB reported she was due to fly to Davos late Monday night and would spend the next three days at the annual World Economic Forum.

Among those Solberg will be meeting are top UN official Gordon Brown, philanthropist and vaccine advocate Bill Gates, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg. Solberg’s main topics of concern include girls’ rights to education and fulfillment of the UN’s sustainability goals.

NTB reported that Solberg and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund have already written in a commentary how the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment and the fight for equal pay serve as a significant backdrop heading into the forum this year. The age of discrimination and assaults on women is over, they claim, while the “time has come for women to blossom.”

Education rights and women’s access to health care are among the Norwegian government’s foreign aid priorities, and Solberg intends to lead some of the debates at Davos in these areas. Solberg will also promote the UN’s sustainability goals at a dinner Tuesday evening with Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, whom she met in China last spring.

Some of Solberg’s fellow government ministers, including Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, will also be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos as will Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit. The organization is now headed by Solberg’s former foreign minister, Børge Brende. Berglund