Pressure grows on entire Parliament

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The embattled president of the Norwegian Parliament continued to fight for his position and reputation on Wednesday, but he’s not the only one under pressure. Both administrators and Members of Parliament (MPs) from all the major political parties face criticism, for failing to ward off huge budget overruns on a massive building scandal that’s mostly blamed on President Olemic Thommessen, just as the MPs are poised to see their own relatively high salaries rise again.

This photo was taken last fall, when Members of Parliament were voting on whether to retain Olemic Thommessen of the Conservatives as President of the Parliament (Stortinget). He narrowly survived the vote and now the reputation of the entire assembly risks being tarnished, following a string of scandals, budget overruns, uncertainty over Thommessen’s leadership and even proposals to boost the MPs’ own salaries. PHOTO: Stortinget

It’s been a rough New Year so far for Norway’s Parliament (Stortinget), which has struggled with controversy over an appointment to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, several sex scandals involving MPs in the wake of the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment and the huge building scandal that’s now set to cost taxpayers another NOK 500 million (USD 64 million). The project to improve access to the Parliament’s garage, rehabilitate an adjacent office building and construct a new postal terminal now is expected to cost at least NOK 2.3 billion, more than twice its budget that already had been repeatedly exceeded several times.

Thommessen, who barely kept his top job under heavy criticism both last summer and last fall, finds himself at the center of uproar once again, following a series of other controversies around him, his leadership and the state auditor’s conclusion that he and colleagues “broke their own rules.” He’s often been viewed as arrogant as he’s also fended off charges of exceeding his powers and withholding information on other issues.

On Wednesday Thommessen had to defend himself once again in front of the Parliament’s finance committee and all the leaders of the parties in Parliament, several of whom have already expressed a lack of confidence in him and his work. He later told reporters that routines had been followed and he indicated he had no intention of resigning.

Speculation swirls over why Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives (shown here addressing Parliament) not only kept Olemic Thommessen (left) in his post as president but has continued to protect him amidst so much scandal. DN political commentator Eva Grinde wondered this week whether it’s out of appreciation that he accepted the post back in 2013 when he really wanted to become her new government’s minister in charge of cultural issues. Solberg is also known for meeting criticism with smiles and a disarming sense of calm. PHOTO: Stortinget

Speculation has flown, meanwhile, over why Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party, who placed him in the post that’s second only to the monarch in Norway, hasn’t fired him already. Conservative politicians were denying this week that Solberg and the party are simply protecting Thommessen, even amidst new charges this week that he went ahead with expensive alternatives in the building project to appease local merchants and the Parliament’s Free Masons lodge, of which Thommessen is a member. He described any attempts to tie his decisions to his membership in the Masons as “a blow below the belt.”

Thommessen claimed that the issue of whether the Parliament retains confidence in him was “not a theme” at Wednesday morning’s meeting before the finance committee. Rather, he said, discussions centered on “who knew what” about the new budget overruns on the building project, and when, “and I think I oriented (committee members and party leaders) well.”

Troubles hurt Parliament itself
As Thommessen tries to hang on to his power and position, criticism is rising that the building scandal and other controversies have cast a shadow over Norway’s entire national assembly, tarnishing its reputation and the public’s confidence in it. Newspapers Aftenposten and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Wednesday that warnings of new budget overruns arose as early as last summer, and that no other political leaders (who form a multi-partisan collective leadership within the president’s office) questioned or halted expensive solutions chosen by Thommessen and his top administrator Ida Børresen, who quit last week.

Newspaper Dagsavisen has criticized “galloping expenses” at the Parliament and reported on how MPs also face criticism over proposed pay raises that can put them further out of touch with the people they serve. In the midst of all the drama over hundreds of millions of kroner in budget overruns on their building project, the leader of the commission formed to recommend salary levels for MPs has suggested the MPs deserve raises. Inger Prebensen, who has worked in the banking sector, pointed to the higher salaries paid to leaders of state agencies and thinks that should set a higher level for the politicians’ pay as well.

Those higher salaries for top bureaucrats have also sparked criticism, though, with some earning even more than the prime minister. “We believe it’s more natural to compare politicians’ pay with that of the ordinary citizens who elected them,” Dagsavisen editorialized on Wednesday. The paper pointed out that average salaries in Norway now amount to just over NOK 500,000 a year. MPs are already earning more than NOK 900,000 and that’s set to pass the NOK 1 million mark with the next percentage hike tied to raises in the industrial sector.

Bad timing
The issue has arisen just as labour negotiations are beginning in a wide range of sectors. The national nurses’ association, for example, is fighting to boost average salaries for nurses in Norway to “at least NOK 500,000.” Raising MPs’ pay to well over NOK 1 million a year will likely neither be popular nor politically acceptable.

Thommessen, meanwhile, now faces having to address the entire Parliament on the building scandal and his office’s acute need for another NOK 500 million to pay bills due. He’s proposing a hiring freeze along with other cost-cutting efforts to help fund the deficit, but the Parliament will also need to be bailed out by the finance ministry, “at the expense of nursing homes and other public services,” Finance Minister Siv Jensen noted last week.

Thommessen claimed Wednesday that he’d been “humbled” by all the problems, and now realizes that “things could have been done differently.” He refused to answer whether he was evaluating his position, or would resign voluntarily.

Others were losing patience: “This is a scandal that’s gone out of control,” claimed Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left party (SV), which lost confidence in Thommessen more than a year ago. “I believe the president should resign,” Lysbakken said. “I think the Conservatives should stop holding a protective hand over a president who is responsible for such a great scandal.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund