New state budget talks underway

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The embattled Christian Democrats are carrying on their crusade for more influence. Now they’ve launched into state budget negotiations with the government parties that could lead to them joining the current conservative government coalition and finally giving it a majority in Parliament, but their participation currently carries a price tag as high as NOK 10 billion.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (second from left) held a meeting with her government’s party leaders and those from the Christian Democrats, after a majority of the latter favoured teaming up with Solberg’s conservative coalition. Now the four parties (Solberg’s Conservatives, the Progress Party, the Liberals and Christian Democrats) are hashing out a state budget. If successful, actual goverment negotiations will follow. PHOTO: Høyre

That’s the amount of new taxes that would be needed to fund the Christian Democrats’ “alternative state budget.” It includes, for example, more money to further add to the state’s already generous support programs for families with small children. Among other things, the Christian Democrats want to nearly double the monthly welfare payments doled out to all families. They currently amount to NOK 970 per month per child, and come in addition to cash support for stay-at-home parents and subsidized day care.

The Christian Democrats also claim they’re making climate issues a priority, while the party’s controversial desire to tighten rules around abortions after three months of pregnancy are being downplayed. Opposition is so strong to any proposed changes in Norway’s abortion law that a party with only around 4 percent of the voters’ support can’t expect much despite Prime Minister Erna Solberg indicating she was open to discussion.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that abortion wasn’t a topic that the Christian Democrats’ board spent a lot of time on during a meeting just prior to the launch of the budget talks. Climate, family and anti-poverty measures instead topped the list. More support for farmers is also important, as is another NOK 500 million in foreign aid, in addition to the higher amount already proposed by the government.

‘Demanding’
The Christian Democrats also want to charge full VAT and customs duties on goods ordered from abroad, removing a current exemption of NOK 350. They want to cut the amount of tax-free tobacco products Norwegians can bring home from abroad by half and reverse changes, made in 2014, that allow Norwegians to bring home more tax-free alcoholic beverages if they haven’t bought any tobacco.

All such measures would be hard to swallow for the Progress Party, which shares government power with Solberg’s Conservatives and the Liberal Party, and already has made it clear that it won’t go along with any tax hikes. That means money will have to be shifted around within the government’s own state budget that Progress’ Finance Minister Siv Jensen presented to Parliament on October 8.

All four parties involved in the talks tried to put a positive spin on the talks. They would simply be “demanding,” noted Progress’ finance policy spokesman Helge André Njåstad, while Abid Raja of the Liberals claimed he was “absolutely certain, even convinced, that we’ll manage to reach an agreement.”

Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide was as ambitious as always, even though his proposal to form a new government with the Labour and Center parties failed to win support. “It’s correct that we aren’t the biggest party, but we are a party that can turn the minority government into a majority government,” he told Aftenposten. “That offers good negotiating possibilities.” He may not resign his post as party leader after all.

Government negotiations next
If the four parties hammer out a budget, then they’ll huddle in negotiations to actually join the government. That will be much more difficuilt, and can easily hang up on issues like immigration and climate. The Progress Party, for example, won’t want to take in more refugees and will want to retain tough immigration policy. Neither Progress nor the Conservatives want to reduce the tax advantages offered to foreign oil companies keen to launch exploration projects on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, as the Christian Democrats propose.

Labour and the Center parties, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings with the own state budget proposals, still aiming to woo the Christian Democrats over to their side. Labour just announced new climate-friendly measures valued at NOK 3 billion, including NOK 700 million for a carbon fund for business and NOK 500 million more for public transport projects. They’ll be up against Solberg herself, however, who’s keen to welcome the Christian Democrats into her government and has a track record of keeping her team together.

The Christian Democrats themselves, meanwhile, have logged a net loss of 300 members since they voted to stick with Solberg two weeks ago. Defectors aren’t happy that a majority within the party rejected Hareide’s proposal to team up with Labour and Center. While 1,200 have left the party, 900 new members have joined, mostly from the southern counties of Agder and Rogaland. That shows how the party remains a force in Norway’s so-called “Bible Belt,” and can still throw some weight around.

Budget negotiations must be completed in time for the Parliament’s finance committee to formally take a position on November 27. Debate will be held in Parliament on December 3. Negotiations on an expanded or new government are expected to be settled before the Christmas holidays.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund