Session ends amid uproar and pay hike

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Norway’s Parliament was closing for the summer on Friday, amid ongoing political uproar over road tolls and sagging public opinion polls. While formal debate won’t resume until early October, conflicts are still flaring among lawmakers who didn’t ajourn before granting themselves “crazy” pay hikes.

Members of Parliament have been burning the midnight oil this week, in a rush to debate and vote on legislation before the summer holidays. They ended up approving road toll financing for several major transport projects despite an ever-rising wave of public opposition to road tolls that’s threatening many of Norway’s established political parties. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

It’s been a stormy session at Norway’s Storting, not least with opposition raging against bompenger (road tolls) and new bompenger-protest parties “stealing” votes from many of Norway’s large established parties on both the right and the left. Finance Minister Siv Jensen, whose most conservative Progress Party is deeply split over road tolls, wound up sick in bed this week with influensa that prevented her from carrying out the traditional defense of the revised state budget on the floor of Parliament Friday.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Friday morning that there would be no resolution of the conservative government coalition’s own internal conflict over road tolls before Parliament closes, but at least the government didn’t fall this week as several political commentators had warned. Some of the Progress Party’s most fervent opponents to road tolls, who have claimed the party should withdraw from the government coalition if it doesn’t succeed in restricting them, simply stayed away from Parliament when a vote had to be taken earlier this week over several large road projects that involve road toll financing. They were approved.

‘Catastrophic’ poll results
It was left to Prime Minister Erna Solberg to defend both the state budget and her struggling coalition, which now collectively holds less than 36 percent of the vote according to the latest public opinion polls. That’s been dubbed as “catastrophic” for the four-party coalition that still holds a majority based on the last national election but is rife with internal conflict.

The biggest opposition party Labour, however, has also taken a new dive in the polls, holding only 23 percent of voters in a recent “party barometer” for June. It was conducted by research firm Opinion for FriFagvevegelse, which specializes in coverage of work life and the labour movement, plus the usually Labour-friendly newspaper Dagsavisen and news bureau ANB. The Socialist Left party (SV) tumbled, too, fully 1.9 points to 6.4 percent after several months of resurgence.

Only the most climate-friendly parties represented in Parliament (the Greens, the Reds and the small Liberals) logged gains, with the Greens gaining 2.8 points to command a relatively high 6.5 percent of the vote. The still-resurgent Reds were up 2 points to a record 7.1 percent.

MP Trygve Slagsvold Vedum was among the few leaders of established parties in Norway who had reason to smile after the latest poll results. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

The farmer-friendly Center Party, which champions subsidy and protectionism to keep outlying areas of Norway populated, has logged the biggest gains in recent months. It also jumped 2.8 points to claim 16.9 percent of the vote, thus breathing down the neck of its former Labour Party colleague in the last left-center government coalition. That was, however, before the public was made aware of shocking conditions and animal abuse at every single farm infiltrated by animal rights activists with hidden cameras and microphones. Norway’s often glorified farmers, who have enjoyed decades of taxpayer support, were suddenly cast into a very bad light indeed.

The other big poll winners were the anti-road toll protest parties, with one of them emerging as now having the most support of any in Bergen. That set off major political alarms just three months before municipal elections in September. Another anti-road toll party in Oslo is rolling along as well, and posing a major threat to Labour, which currently holds control of Oslo’s city government.

Some commentators call both the Center Party and the new road toll protest parties both “populistic” and made up of opportunists. Questions remain over how the single-issue anti-road toll parties would vote on other important issues from schools to health care and elder care. Most support major road projects but not the tolls that that help fund them. They mostly object to road tolls being used to finance other transport projects, like trams and bike lane construction, at the expense of motorists.

Voted to boost their own pay: ‘Crazy’
As debate swirled before MPs mostly leave Oslo for the summer, the vast majority agreed on one thing: Pay raises for themselves. MPs from all the parties except SV and the Reds approved giving themselves and members of the government a 3.2 percent pay raise.

They claimed it was in line with labour agreements this past spring and wage hikes granted “ordinary” Norwegian workers. It’s the resulting income levels  that sparked protests in some quarters: MPs will now earn almost NOK 1 million a year (NOK 987,997, to be exact, or USD 116,000). Government ministers will earn NOK 1,410,073 and the prime minister will earn NOK 1,735,682 (just over USD 200,000 a year).

“We think the pay levels are too high when you see what most folks in the country earn,” Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of the Reds party, told news bueau NTB. “We want to cut the pay for Members of Parliament, not increase it.” Moxnes has proposed a pay level of just under NOK 800,000.

SV politicians also argued against the pay hikes, which were formally proposed by an external commission so the politicians could avoid complaints they actually set the levels themselves. Opponents noted that the annual increase for MPs along (NOK 31,500 per year) was equal to a month’s pay for many folks, and in sharp contrast to increases granted retirees in pension income.

Carl I Hagen of the Progress Party retorted that MPs opposed to their pay raise could simply reject them. “If they’re against it, it would be immoral of them to receive the money,” Hagen told state broadcaster NRK.

That’s pretty much what MP Freddy André Øvstegård of SV is doing. He called the pay raise both “crazy” and “ridiculous,” and is turning nearly NOK 100,000 of his own salary over to SV’s youth group. MPs for both SV and the Reds, meanwhile, also pay a “tax” to their respective parties.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund