Olemic Thommessen, president of the Norwegian Parliament (Storting), ignored repeated calls for his resignation on Tuesday. In a formal response to the outcry over huge budget overruns on an ill-fated Parliament construction project, Thommessen continued to blame others for what’s being called the biggest scandal in the Parliament’s history.
He also dismissed another call from the leaders of the Labour, Center, Socialist Left, Greens and Reds parties to immediately step down. They have all lost confidence in Thommessen, a serious and unprecedented situation that also puts the public’s confidence in their national assembly at risk.
“It’s clear this has been extremely demanding, a nightmare over the past several years,” Thommessen said in response to the calls that were made by five party leaders from the podium after he’d spent 45 minutes reporting on the status of the building scandal. His office now needs at least another NOK 486 million (USD 62 million) in order to complete its expensive construction project by sometime next year.
The veteran politician from the Conservative Party, which leads Norway’s coalition government, claimed he and his staff have been working “day and night” over the past few weeks and that he’s “very sorry we have landed in this situation.” He further claimed he was taking all the criticism “very seriously” but feels he was re-elected by Parliament last fall to carry out his job and he won’t walk away from it.
Bjørnar Moxnes of the Reds Party was the harshest of the party leaders in his statement from the podium, contending that Thommessen was simply keen to hang on to his prestigious post and its salary of NOK 1.6 million a year. Moxnes also blamed Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg for re-nominating her party fellow Thommessen after last September’s election, and then securing a slim majority of votes in favour of his presidency. Solberg’s nomination and Thommessen’s re-election came despite massive criticism from the State Auditor General’s office last June.
Moxnes admitted that Thommessen is not solely responsible for the huge budget overruns on the project to remodel an adjacent office building, create a new underground terminal for post and other goods and build a new tunnel to access the Parliament’s underground parking garage. Claiming that it’s time for politicians to accept responsibility for the errors and stop “protecting each other,” though, Moxnes urged his fellow MPs to support his party’s proposal for a new election of a new president.
It’s perhaps most significant, and unsettling for MPs, when the largest party in Parliament no longer has confidence in Thommessen either. Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre pointed to the chronic lack of communication within Thommessen’s office and between his office and the rest of Parliament. He, like Center Party leader Marit Arnstad and Socialist Left leader Audun Lysbakken, said it was now only “natural” for Thommessen to “take responsibilty” and resign as president.
Christian Democrats will decide Thommessen’s fate
With the three minority government parties (the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberal Party) sticking by Thommessen, it’s ultimately up to the small Christian Democrats party to decide his fate. It has wound up with the swing vote on the issue, but Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide was the only one to declare on Tuesday that his party “had not yet concluded” on whether Thommessen should take the fall. He, like all the others, was highly critical of how the budget overruns have doubled during Thommessen’s tenure, but wants to wait until the Parliament’s finance committee has reviewed the situation once again.
Thommessen thus won another reprieve of sorts, admitting only that he “perhaps” could have done a better job following up the construction project over the past several years. He agreed it was “difficult to understand” how a construction project that started out with a budget of NOK 70 million could expand so much and end up costing NOK 2.3 billion, the latest estimate of the final bill.
There was no immediate reaction when he mentioned in his rebuttal to all the criticism that he’s hired even more outside consultants to help ensure the project’s completion. That can add to its costs at a time when Thommessen stressed that other cost-cutting programs are being proposed to help cover the budget deficit. He and most other MPs, however, have rejected a proposal from the Socialist Left, Greens and Reds parties to cut their own salaries, which are approaching NOK 1 million or more.