Parliament gets back to business

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NEWS ANALYSIS: After weeks of sexual harassment scandals that all but paralyzed parliamentary politics in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s newly expanded government and the rest of Parliament were getting back to business this week. Solberg was already facing defeat on some of her coalition’s proposals, but even that may be easier to bear than all the recent distractions.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg was back at the podium in Norway’s Parliament this week, delivering her government’s platform for the months ahead. PHOTO: Stortinget

Solberg started out by calling the leaders of all political parties in Parliament to a meeting where they could “share experiences” regarding the harassment cases that have plagued each party. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that she had initially invited them to her office Tuesday morning, but the leaders of the opposition parties asserted themselves and wanted her to come to the Parliament instead.

She did, and said afterwards that she thought they had a “good, thoughtful discussion about the challenges. I think it’s been enlightening among the parties, given the challenges we have all faced.” She said the parties intended to exchange information on internal guidelines and regulations, without necessarily following the same ones. Both her Conservative Party and the Labour Party have set up commissions charged with proposing new measures against sexual harassment. The Conservatives’ will be led by Henrik Syse, who represents the Conservatives on the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize. Now he’ll try to restore peace within a party dealing with numerous cases of harassment by male politicians including MP Kristian Tonning Riise.

Before the parliamentary sesson began, Prime Minister Solberg gathered all party leaders to discuss what’s distracted them the past several weeks: sexual harassment, and how to stop it. PHOTO: Stortinget

Kirsti Bergstø, acting leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), claimed she expected all the parties to also concentrate on measures to address sexual harassment in society, not just within their own parties. “It’s not enough that the parties improve themselves,” Bergstø told news bureau NTB, “their job is to improve society. My clear expectation is that we will discuss political solutions. There’s no reason to believe (sexual harassment) is worse in political parties than it is anywhere else.”

Members of Parliament from the Labour Party, which has been hardest hit by the harassment charges around its former deputy leader and MP Trond Giske, were perhaps the most relieved of all when everyone could troop back into Parliament, listen to Solberg formally present her newly expanded government’s declaration and start debating issues. Labour politicians had gathered Monday for extraordinary central and national board meetings at which Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre won support for how he’s handled the case against Giske, who has been relieved of all party posts but, like Riise, remains an MP. As elected officials they’re not allowed to resign and parties can’t fire them. Both Riise and Giske remain on sick leave, however, and weren’t attending parliamentary sessions this week. Nor was MP Ulf Leirstein of the Progress Party, who also lost his party posts in the midst of sex scandals that finally were revealed.

‘Lighter states of mind’
“I think we all left (Labour’s board meetings) with a lighter states of mind than when we came,” said Espen Barth Eide, a former defense- and foreign minister for Labour who’s now an MP. His return to Oslo after also trying to broker peace on Cyprus as a UN envoy has not gone as planned: Labour had intended to win the last election and return to government power, with Eide likely holding another ministerial post. Labour lost, however, and then faced an autumn full of anguish and soul-searching topped by the Giske scandal.

“Now we’ve cleared up many questions, there won’t be an extraordinary national meeting (to elect any new party leaders) and we collectively support the current leadership,” Eide told Dagsavisen. Now the goal is to get Labour back on its feet, he said, claiming its social democratic program and policies “are more needed than ever.”

Flexing political muscles
Neither Labour leader Støre nor the leader of the opposition Center Party, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, wasted any time in attacking Solberg’s minority coalition government’s platform after Parliament reassembled. They made it clear they won’t support the government’s plans for liberalizing store opening hours on Sunday, shifting the financing for elder care from municipalities to the state, or restricting settlement of refugees in small communities. They were keen to flex their muscles, knowing full well that Solberg’s coalition needs support from at least one other party in Parliament in order to get any legislation passed.

“The government has moved farther to the right on several points,” declared Støre in Parliament on Wednesday, “but what’s new in this period is that the government can’t reckon on getting a majority.”

The Reds Party, meanwhile, wants to make it easier for workers to join labour organizations (by making up to NOK 7,000 of union membership fees tax deductible) while the Christian Democrats want to avoid any liberalization of alcohol sales. It’s not certain the Christian Democrats, however, will win support for that from the other parties in opposition.

Battles ahead
Støre declared that his Labour Party will exercise its opposition in several other areas as well. “We see that differences between people are increasing, workplaces are less secure and it’s become less attractive to join labour unions,” Støre said. “We’re heading into a teacher crisis in Norwegian schools and have a new minister in charge of elder care who is most concerned with administrative reforms that we don’t believe in.”

The leader of the Conservatives’ parliamentary delegation, Trond Helleland, was quick to retort that “as far as I know, Norway is still the best country in the world in which to live (also after the last four years with Solberg as prime minister), we score highest in most rankings and even many in the US point out that Norway functions well. The government is well aware of the challenges Norway faces, and we will secure a sustainable welfare state economically, environmentally and socially.”

The battle to do that is thus officially back on.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund