Parties withhold own party spending

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Members of Parliament were debating next year’s use of the taxpayers’ money on Monday, amidst revelations that several of their own political parties won’t disclose how they spend public funds they’ve received for their parliamentary delegations. Calls are rising for a state audit, not least after the Progress Party was found to have spent the most money of them all on pure partying.

Members of Parliament were debating next year’s state budget on Monday, just as questions are rising over their own use of the taxpayers’ money. PHOTO: Stortinget

Newspaper Aftenposten has revealed in a series of articles over the past two weeks how the eight party delegations in Parliament have received NOK 862 million (USD 101 million) in funding allocations over the past five years. No one audits how that money is spent, and the parties are under no legal obligation to publicly account for their spending.

Only the smallest parties in opposition (the Greens, the Reds, the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Left) agreed to open up their books for Aftenposten when first asked last month. After initially refusing to do the same, the Liberal Party eventually changed its mind and also gave insight into how its small parliamentary delegation spent money allocated for annual operations.

Biggest parties defy disclosure
Neither the Labour Party, the Center Party, the Conservatives nor the Progress Party (the latter two of which lead Norway’s conservative coalition government), however, would open up their books and reveal how they spent the taxpayers’ money. Each parliamentary delegation consists of both its party’s elected MPs plus party employees.  The funding they receive is meant to ensure that each party is “able to carry out its operations so that MPs can do their jobs.”

Much of the money, according to Aftenposten, is used to pay MPs’ political advisers and the delegations’ administrative employees and organizational expenses. It comes in addition, though, to the money that Stortinget (the Parliament) pays to cover MPs’ travel expenses, their living expenses in Oslo and their annual salaries of NOK 956,000 (USD 112,000 at current exchange rates).

Aftenposten noted how the political leaders in the largest parties, from Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre to the Center Party’s Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Erna Solberg, demand openness regarding use of taxpayers’ money in all public operations. They just won’t be open themselves about their own use of taxpayers’ money.

‘Party-party’
It didn’t take Aftenposten long, however, to report that it had nonetheless gained access to how some of the parties spent their money, not least on so-called “welfare expenses” that mostly include parties and other forms of socializing. The right-wing Progress Party, which has complained the most about “unnecessary” use of public money over the years, turned out to have spent by far the most on social  events, with an average of NOK 26,937 per member of their parliamentary delegation per year. The Conservatives were next, at NOK 13,551, followed by the Christian Democrats at NOK 4,416, the Liberals at NOK 3,884, Labour at NOK 3,732 and the Center Party at NOK 1,874.

That compares to the annual limit set on social expenses for state employess otherwise of just NOK 467. Private sector employers are also limited to the same amount that can be deducted from taxes. Any spending on parties or entertainment for above that is considered taxable income.

The Progress Party, moreover, reacted with sharp criticism when it emerged in 2013 that the state agency in charge of defense department property had spent around NOK 4,500 per employee on travel, socializing and parties like a julebord or summer gathering. MP Jan Arild Ellingsen blasted the amount as “sending the wrong signal,” while his own party spent almost six times as much on such things as dinner, parties and a trip to London after last year’s election.

The leader of the the Progress Party’s secretariat, Per Kristian Solbakk, wouldn’t answer why it thinks members of its parliamentary delegation can spend 57 times as much taxpayer money on social events than other state employees. Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, deferred all questions back to the parliamentary delegation itself, saying “they’re the ones responsible for this.” Professor Jan Fridthjof Bernt at the University of Bergen told Aftenposten that they and they others refusing to disclose expenses “have a serious clarification problem here.”

Joint statement
While the small parties (whose “welfare expenses” are far less than the larger parties’) urge the bigger parties to fully dislose all their spending, they have so far refused. They won’t even answer other questions individually, but rather issued a joint statement that they send annual accounts to the president of the Parliament and they’re monitored by an accounting firm. They don’t want to go into more detail, however, out of alleged “consideration for the privacy of employees.”

The Labour Party received the most funding for its parliamentary delegation last year (NOK 49.7 million) since it remains the largest single party. Its secretariat’s leader, Snorre Wikstrøm, insisted its accounts were open for inspection, but claimed the delegation itself “isn’t a public institution” subject to state disclosure rules. The Parliament, he said, has approved its own rules “that we follow, and they don’t demand full disclosure.” He wouldn’t comment on how other parties like the Reds and SV have opted for disclosure anyway, saying “each party must answer for itself.”

The “answers” given by Labour, the Progress Party and others who refuse full disclosure do not satisfy lawyers like Kristine Foss, an expert on public information for the Norwegian Press Federation. Foss noted that the identity of any individual receiving “welfare” money can be deleted from reports. Several professors have criticized the lack of openness that’s demanded of others, saying it can hurt the reputations of the parties involved.”

Calling in the State Auditor General
On Monday, Professor Per Lægreid at the University of Bergen, said the State Auditor General (Riksrevisjonen) who start examining the parliamentary delegation’s use of public funds. The current lack of openness, he told Aftenposten “doesn’t exactly contribute towards strengthening folks confidence in politicians.”

That point has been made by others, who note how politicians in and out of government harshly criticized a recent lack of disclosure by the national athletics federation that receives much of its budget from the state, and pressured them into it. Now they’re guilty of the same thing. “Folks can raise questions about whether you have something to hide,” said Kari Elisabeth Kaski of the Socialist Left party, which has disclosed its expenses.

Progress Party politicians have acknowledged that they can “understand that this has sparked reaction,” after Aftenposten revealed the numbers it had about money spent by the party on partying. The party claims this year’s amount will be lower than the NOK 1.4 million spent on social activities in 2017.

That’s a matter of dispute, since the state budget proposal for next year shows another overall increase in funding for the parliamentary delegations. They collectively received NOK 186 million this year. Next year they’re set to get NOK 197 million, up 5.9 percent and thus more than expected price and pay hikes.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund