Drama behind the state budget talks

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They’ve mostly put on smiles for the cameras, but there’s been so much drama and apparent conflict within the Liberal Party that its deputy leader and chief negotiator, Abid Raja, is now out on sick leave. The Liberals’ leader, Trine Skei Grande, has had to publicly apologize after getting caught speaking badly about Raja to the government’s chief negotiator from the Conservative Party.

Abid Raja, shown here with the head of Norway’s Liberal Party, Trine Skei Grande, when they were both still smiling. Now he’s out on sick leave after she apparently thought she was discrediting him behind his back. PHOTO: Venstre

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Monday on what some are calling a “rather sensational” situation within top Norwegian politics. It involves a party leader and government minister (Grande) blurting out strong criticism of her own party’s finance policy spokesman while in conversation with a politician from another party. She didn’t realize that she was on a speaker phone and that not only Raja himself but also another top government budget negotiator could hear what Grande said.

That certainly didn’t give Raja the best starting point or feeling that he had support before he had to go into negotiations and fight for the Liberal Party’s policies, a politician familiar with the incident told state broadcaster NRK.

Embarrassing situation
DN broke the story Monday about the embarrassing situation for both Grande and Raja that began in the early afternoon of Saturday November 10.  The Christian Democrats had just decided to seek state budget cooperation with the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberals, and then negotiate to join the government themselves.

Raja was sitting in a meeting with the Conservatives’ finance policy spokesman and MP, Henrik Asheim, who also heads the Parliament’s finance committee. Also sitting around the table was Helge André Njaastad, finance policy spokesman for the Progress Party. Before heading into budget talks with the Christian Democrats, the trio of government party negotiators needed to clarify a nagging detail: Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, had written on social media that the government was reversing budget cuts to the controversial conservative group Human Rights Service (HRS). Raja had claimed that wasn’t true.

Asheim wanted to talk to Grande, who was in Madrid for the weekend attending a gathering of liberal party leaders in Europe.

‘Listen to me now…’
Asheim called Grande and turned on his speaker phone. DN reported  that she said she was sitting in a café in Madrid “with a glass,” and sounded cheerful.

“We’re all three sitting here and we need to clarify this issue,” Asheim told Grande. “Abid says you haven’t accepted the reversal (of HRS’ funds).”

Grande responded that yes, she had, but she disagreed with the way the news had been presented. Asheim posed another question, beginning with “Abid says that…” and Grande cut him off:

“Listen to me now,” she demanded, and launched into a verbal tirade against her own deputy leader Raja that was described as highly demeaning. Among her comments: “Abid is undermining the whole budget process and the party!”

Abid Raja has challenged his Liberal Party’s leader before. He was the only party member to ask for a clarification of a controversial sexual escapade Grande had several years ago that she won’t comment on herself. He was quickly criticized and backed down. PHOTO: Venstre

Asheim quickly cut off the speaker phone function while Grande continued to talk. Asheim reportedly ended the conversation as quickly as he could, but there sat what DN called “three stunned finance policy makers, all witness to how a party leader herself undermined the authority of her party’s negotiator on the state budget.” They simply had to recover, carry on and ultimately emerge later that day smiling for the media as though nothing had happened.

DN reported that Asheim called Grande back later to inform her that his speaker phone had been on and that both Raja and Njaastad had heard what she’d said. He declines further comment.

Raja, who isn’t commenting either while on sick leave, reportedly didn’t hear anything more from Grande through the weekend. On Monday November 12, though, he told the party’s parliamentary leader Terje Breivik what had happened. Word also began to fly in political circles what Grande had said, and rumours reportedly reached the Christian Democrats, too.

Raja continued working on the budget until November 14, when he also had to testify in a court case against an Islamic extremist charged with threatening him. Later that day Breivik, Raja and a state secretary from the prime minister’s office, Audun Rødningsby of the Liberal Party, had a meeting with Grande.

Emotion and apologies
DN reported that the meeting was described as “quite emotional” and ended with Grande acknowledging what she had said about Raja and apologizing to him. Grande also reportedly contacted Asheim and Njaastad and apologized as well. NRK felt compelled to call Grande’s state secretary Jan Christian Kolstø to ask whether she was sober when she made her outburst on the phone to Asheim. Kolstø answered “yes” to that.

Raja, meanwhile, kept on negotiating until agreement was formally reached between the government parties and the Christian Democrats. At the same time, the president of the Parliament announced that Abid Q Raja would go on sick leave from November 29 until he felt well enough to return to work. DN reported that Raja told colleagues that Grande had made him sick. He did not take part in the formal debate in Parliament Monday on the state budget.

Grande has issued the following statement: “I think it’s extremely sad that Abid is on sick leave. He has done a fantastically good job during the negotiations on the state budget, and we’re all proud of the result of that job. It’s correct that there has been discussion about an issue in the budget and that in connection with that, things got a bit hot and some words fell that should not have fallen, I have apologized for the that.”

DN and NRK reported that the prime minister’s office has been involved in the drama. Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been traveling in South Africa this weekend and was in Angola on Monday, and unavailable for comment.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund