Top politicians, state officials, journalists and not least lobbyists are gathering in the scenic coastal town of Arendal again this week, to see and be seen, and debate major issues of the day. The head of Norway’s Center Party, who normally promotes ventures outside of Oslo, calls it all “a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Trygve Vedum, who’s often accused of populist tactics as he tries to lure voters away from Norway’s bigger political parties, also told newspaper Dagsavisen that he considers Arendalsuka (literally, Arendal’s Week) “a state-financed festival for the elite.”
There’s no question the four-day event, which is drawing most of Norway’s movers and shakers to Arendal for the eighth year in a row, has become a fairly big budget item for organizations, ministries, media, labour unions and the political parties themselves. They set up booths, charter boats for floating seminars, host breakfasts, lunches and dinners, hire meeting halls and also have to eat and fund accommodation for themselves. Local hotels are packed and some Arendal residents opt to leave town during the event, renting out their own homes to Arendalsuka participants.
They call it a “festival of democracy,” while Vedum thinks it’s outgrown its usefulness: “The fact that around 50 state departments with all their communications apparatus are down there isn’t just a waste of money, it’s an illustration of a development in the public sector that’s gone completely out of control.”
He thinks that instead of mingling with one another at buffets and other gatherings, public sector workers should concentrate on just doing their jobs and serving the public themselves. “The communications departments within state agencies have never been bigger,” Vedum fumed. “It seems like every single directorate is most concerned with making their own mark. But the most important work comes from doing their duties. That’s where the (taxpayers’) money should be spent. Many think NOK 100,000 (USD 11,500) isn’t much, but that’s in fact what two nursing assistants pay in tax during a whole year.”
Vedum complains that the event, which is setting a record this year with 1,200 events, more than 500 organizations and 100,000 people participating, has led many to believe that “everyone” has to be at Arendalsuka. “That’s an extremely artificial need,” he told Dagsavisen. He also called it a “mecca” for communications and public relations firms.
Asked what his own Center Party was spending to be in Arendal and take part in meetings and debates, Vedum claimed he “didn’t have an overview” of expenses. “but I’ll be sharing a hotel room to cut costs.” He admitted that he did enjoy “just meeting ordinary folks” on the streets of Arendal, and he would as usual be taking part in the traditional party leader debate.