Politicians need a better New Year

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s seemed as though there’s never been so much unrelenting and disturbing political news in Norway as during this past year in Parliament, and it wasn’t even an election year. Conflicts, internal splits and downright scandal have tainted all the major parties, meaning that their politicians need to straighten up if they hope to maintain voter confidence and their relatively high salaries.

The Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) had a lot of dark and tough days in 2018, with its members under pressure to straighten up and behave better in 2019. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“We’ve begun to see a picture of an underlying culture in which politicians are losing their grip on the responsibility that goes along with using the taxpayers’ money,” wrote Hege Ulstein, a commentator for newspaper Dagsavisen, just before the Christmas holidays. “Nor does it look very good when they set strict rules for everyone else but are much more generous with themselves.”

Ulstein was referring mostly to relevations in newspaper Aftenposten that generated one of the last scandals of the year. Members of Parliament have allocated NOK 862 million (around USD 100 million) over the past five years to their own parties’ parliamentary delegations, spending most of the money on parties and travel. The Labour Party’s delegation has entertained itself at such exclusive hotels as Continental and Grims Grenka in Oslo, while the government parties have partied themselves at one of Oslo’s most expensive venues, the rooftop of the Steen & Strøm retail complex.

Epidemic at the Parliament
After examining no less than 19,000 expense account reports, Aftenposten also uncovered the scandal that led to Progress Party MP Mazyar Keshvari’s sudden sick leave, one of several top politicians who wound up “sick” after getting themselves into trouble. Keshvari admitted to cheating on his expense accounts, claiming refunds for travel he never took or visits to party chapters that he never made. He can’t account for around NOK 150,000 of the taxpayers’ money that he received to cover alleged expenses, and he’s now been charged with aggravated fraud.

The financial fooling around, and the refusal by Labour, the Conservatives, The Progress Party and the Center Party to be more open about their delegations’ so-called “welfare” expenses has surprised and disgusted many. It pales, however, in comparison to how the year started, with one politician after another getting caught in the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment. That resulted in Labour’s loss of a deputy leader (Trond Giske) and the Conservatives’ loss of their youth organization’s leader (Kristian Tonning Riise), while the Progress Party had to withdraw its MP Ulf Leirstein as its justice policy spokesman after he’d sent hard porn to a 14-year-old boy.

The drama surrounding Labour’s former deputy leader, Trond Giske, last winter seemed to set the tone for a year of scandal at Stortinget (Parliament). PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande, meanwhile, refused to comment on how she’d had sex in farmer’s field with a young man at the wedding of the Center Party’s deputy leader Ola Borten Moe. He later fell under suspicion shortly thereafter, for having sent an obscene text message to the party’s former female leader Liv Signe Navarsete. He denied sending it, but so did all the other nine Center Party men whom he’d been partying with at a hytte in Sweden when the nasty message was sent. The whole group ended up being viewed as chauvinist cowards who got away with their sexist prank.

Meanwhile, the Progress Party had run into big trouble over its outspoken and often highly offense justice minister, Sylvi Listhaug, who accused the Labour Party of believing “that that rights of terrorists are more important than national security.” Her Facebook attack on the only party that has actually been a target of terrorism (when an ultra right-wing extremist bombed government headquarters and then unleased a massacre on July 22, 2011) left Listhaug in dangerously deep water, and she was forced to resign her cabinet post.

The anti-immigration Progress Party also lost another of its government ministers, Per Sandberg, after he’d ignored security rules regarding use of mobil phones abroad and flew off to Iran for summer holiday with a new Iranian girlfriend without informing Prime Minister Solberg. The circus that followed that scandal, with Sandberg refusing to admit he’d done anything wrong, was unprecedented in Norwegian politics and another embarrassment for Erna Solberg’s government, which narrowly avoided falling on two separate occasions this past year.

Solberg’s Conservatives also ultimately lost their hand-picked president of the Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, over his office’s handling of a renovation project at the Parliament that spun wildly out of control and created a budget overrun of nearly NOK 2 billion.

Deep division
Huge internal splits, meanwhile, permeated the Labour, Liberal and Christian Democrats’ parties, with the latter then grabbing more attention than any party with just 4.2 percent of the vote arguably deserves. The Christian Democrats’ leader’s decision to end its cooperation with Solberg’s conservative coalition and team up with Labour and Center instead set off a huge conflict both within and outside the party, and a drama that dominated politics all autumn long. It ended when the Christian Democrats themselves rejected their leader Knut Arild Hareide’s advice and voted to stick with Solberg, a decision that’s set off the negotiations that start this coming week to join her coalition.

There also was highly unusual drama around and within the Liberal Party, and more undignified claims that its leader Trine Skei Grande bursts into tears so often that it’s difficult to work with her. It all came to a head when Grande attacked her own state budget negotiator Abid Raja, claiming he was trying to undermine her authority. Like Giske, Riise and Keshvari before his, Raja went out on sick leave.

Most all the politicians who got into various forms of highly public trouble this year are now all back at work within their parties or in Parliament, since they hold elected positions and can’t simply be fired by their parties. That’s raised  complaints that the politicians aren’t held fully accountable for their actions, and that they can get away with much more than the average Norwegian. The pot boiled over when Aftenposten revealed all the questionable use of taxpayer millions on travel and entertainment. Now they all face a proposal from the Greens Party, which so far has not been caught in any scandals, nor have the Reds or the Socialist Left. The Greens are demanding more openness by the parties into how they spend money on themselves, not least since MPs and other elected officials receive salaries that are much higher than average in Norway. MPs earn nearly NOK 1 million a year (USD 115,000), while ministers earn NOK 1.36 million. They also have generous pension programs and can claim solid severance pay if they lose their seats.

The year ended not only with questionable expense accounts in Parliament, but with a newly retired county governor and former government minister from Tromsø being charged with abusing his position to gain sexual favours from asylum seekers, while another former government minister, Erik Solheim, had to resign as the UN’s climate chief because of his excessive travel and use of UN funds.

Ulstein and others argue that there’s little if any excuse for abuse of the system, or outright cheating or bad behaviour. Unless they all manage to redeem themselves before the next election, they risk being fired by voters who don’t take kindly to political leaders who don’t practice what they preach.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund