Finance minister rides out the storm

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Siv Jensen has just broken Norway’s record for being the longest-serving finance minister since World War II. That’s in sharp contrast to the high turnover of other government ministers from the often-stormy Progress Party she leads, but now she’s aiming for stability and calling for more discipline both within party ranks and the next state budget.

Finance Minister Siv Jensen has had a rough few weeks, dealing with both state budget negotiations and another major ministerial upheaval in the government. Now she’s calling for more discipline, in a variety of areas. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been bearing most of the brunt of recent turmoil within the government she leads in partnership with Jensen. The finance minister was standing by Solberg, however, when they had to announce two weeks ago that the Progress Party’s justice minister, Tor Mikkel Wara, would be going on leave because his live-in partner was facing criminal charges. Both were “shocked” by the police investigation, and Wara ended up resigning on Thursday, forcing the appointment on Friday of Norway’s sixth justice minister in as many years.

Jensen has nonetheless managed to keep the justice minstry under her party’s political control. She described her party’s latest choice for justice minister, Jøran Kallmyr, as an “experienced” Progress Party member who’s familiar with the ministry’s work as a former state secretary, “especially in the area of immigration.” Progress has long promoted restrictive immigration and asylum policy, and Kallmyr has been among the party’s hard-liners.

Proud despite turbulence
Jensen, meanwhile, has been a steady force in the government, both as finance minister and Solberg’s partner. “Very few thought the Progress Party would sit four years in the government and, in fact, be re-elected,” Jensen told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. Now, Aftenposten noted, her tenure alone has surpassed all her post-war predecessors, breaking the last record set by Ole Myrvoll of the Liberal Party, who served five years, five months and 11 days as finance minister from 1965 to 1971.

Jensen and her government colleagues as state budget talks began in Hurdal earlier this month: from left, Olaug Bollestad of the Christian Democrats, Jensen, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives and Trine Skei Grande of the Liberals Party. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Jensen, gearing up for municipal elections this fall and the next national election in 2021, remains proud of the government’s record despite recent turbulence not only in the justice ministry but in the wake of the “MeToo” disclosures of sexual harassment at the highest levels of Norwegian politics. Jensen predictably is most pre-occupied with economy and budget matters at present, though, having recently emerged from the first major government negotiations on the next state budget for 2020.

“We have steered Norway safely through demanding times with the oil price fall,” Jensen told Aftenposten. “Now we see that things are going well in Norway. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 10 years, investments in mainland (as opposed to offshore) businesses are the highest in 10 years and more people are joining the labour force.” Economic growth has resumed, she stressed.

Jensen warned, however, that the government now needs to enforce much tighter budget discipline as work continues on next year’s state budget that will be presented in October. Gone are the days of government spending to stimulate an economy that was suddenly lashed by the oil price collapse in 2014. There was a need in the years that followed to invest in public works projects and infrastructure to create jobs that could offset the thousands lost in the oil business. With oil prices back up again and renewed oil investments, government spending needs to be cut.

Hitting the brakes instead of the gas
“We can’t step on the gas in the same way we did before,” Jensen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “Now we need to hold back.”

That means tighter budgets for each and every ministry with the exception, to some degree, of the defense ministry that needs to try to meet some NATO spending goals. Jensen doesn’t hide the fact that the budget she’ll present this fall will contain more cuts and far fewer major investments. She won’t be able to spend nearly as much of Norway’s oil money as she’d like to.

“It’s much more important to set priorities, and find the room we can to negotiate,” Jensen said. The government met immediate criticism in Parliament when it proposed dipping into Norway’s Oil Fund to cover the unexpected costs of replacing the sunken frigate Helge Ingstad and rebuilding the government headquarters in central Oslo that was bombed by a right-wing extremist in 2011. Jensen said ministry staff was still working on whether such financing would be possible.

Demands for better behaviour
Jensen is also now calling for more discipline in another area: the behaviour of her own members and not least top politicians in the Progress Party. The party was hit be several embarrassing cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, not least by some of its leading Members of Parliament, and there even were complaints about the behaviour of a large group of female party members who met at Oslo City Hall on International Women’s Day on March 8, where the wine was flowing. Jensen has had enough.

“If people don’t manage to behave themselves, the party will crack down on it,” Jensen said. “It’s ruining things for thousands of other hard-working Progress party members who try to direct attention to our policies and our solutions.”

The party’s board approved a new batch of stronger ethical guidelines at the meeting and Jensen made it clear that “enough is enough, and we expect our people to behave themselves both within the party and in their private lives.”

The new guidelines include the ability to issue sanctions against party members who violate them. They can be blocked from being candidates for either party positions or elected office, and can be banned from attending party functions.

News bureau NTB reported that the board, according to Jensen, “also sent a clear signal that the ethical and organizational guidelines must be followed.” The party, meanwhile, has been hit with three new complaints of harassment so far this year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund