Uncertainty rules as Progress regresses

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Norway’s Progress Party is already shifting into regress mode, with its soon-to-be former Oil & Energy Minister Sylvi Listhaug leading the charge. Just days after storming out of the government, she’s vowing to scrap or reverse a lot of what her party approved as members of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative cabinet.

Sylvi Listhaug, one of the most outspoken members of the conservative Progress Party, now ranks as Norway’s shortest-serving oil minister ever. She will, however, continue to promote the oil and gas industry from Parliament. PHOTO: Equinor/Arne Reidar Mortensen

Listhaug only lasted a few weeks as head of the ministry in charge of Norway’s most lucrative industry, oil and gas. Now she’s keen to rein in her own (former) government’s policy on windmill construction, just as funds for wind energy are finally blowing in. She’ll continue to promote more Arctic oil exploration than ever before, but wants to block construction of a long-planned electric power cable from Norway to the UK, on the grounds it will boost electricity rates at home.

Most of this defies the policy of Solberg’s conservative coalition, which Progress was part of for the last six-and-a-half years. There are now a string of many other issues that Progress once supported but is now is publicly slamming, as several more party members speak even more freely than before.

A drug-rehabilitation program that partially decriminalized some narcotics, for example, will be put back in play, as will calls for much more state compensation for fur-farmers who are going out of business since fur-farming was finally banned in Norway after years of examples of animal abuse. Road tolls, taxes on cars and reform of biotechnology law are also up for renegotiation in Parliament, which clearly is being shaken up by Progress’ return to the opposition. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen has also claimed that her “tougher” troops will also fight to retain more local hospitals, instead of building new larger regional facilities.

Dismantling a merger, too
On Wednesday came confirmation that Progress is also keen to quickly dismantle the controversial merger of several counties that formed one huge new county called Viken as of January 1st. It combines the former mountain county of Buskerud with the ex-Akershus (which surrounds the Oslo area) and ex- Østfold, and now stretches all the way from the ski resort of Hemsedal in the northwest to Halden in the southeast. Many scoff at its size and scope as an unnatural combination of regions and people who have widely diverse interests.

Progress’ new rhetoric on various issues is creating confusion and, not least, uncertainty over where its allegiances will really lie. Many of Progress “new” views and goals are clearly in line with the rival Center Party’s, which is part of the opposition left-center side of Parliament, It has long fought the power cable issue and blasted the government’s forced consolidation of Norwegian counties and municipalities.

Signals are thus decidedly mixed over how Progress will operate in Parliament. It claims it will still support the Conservatives’ Erna Solberg as prime minister but follow its own party program rather than the Solberg government’s so-called “Granavolden platform” hammered out last year at the hotel bearing that name in Hadeland, north of Oslo. The platform was painstakingly agreed upon after the Christian Democrats joined Solberg’s government, expanding it to what proved to be an unwieldy four-party coalition.

Sylvi Listhaug had already raised questions of her impartiality regarding wind energy when she claimed in this social media message last year that windmills litter the landscape. FACSIMILE: Twitter

While Progress now suddenly seems to agree on several issues with one of its arch-rivals, the Center Party, Progress earlier has vowed to win back voters that it apparently lost to Center during its time in government. Political commentators were widely suggesting on Tuesday that Progress would fight hard against Center in Parliament and in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign.

Progress’ own energy and environmental policy spokesman Terje Halleland told newspaper Klassekampen earlier this week that the Center Party is indeed Progress’ main opponent in the run-up to the election in 2021, along with Labour. “They’re a party that has trampled in to our areas,” Halleland said. He warned of “full confrontation” with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum: “They like to present themselves as a party for motorists and the outlying districts, and they’ve been eager to criticize Progress. We need to tell folks that Progress in the government managed to make cars a priority and make it easier to live in the districts.”

On Wednesday, however, new headlines were suggesting that Progress would instead woo Center in Parliament, and offer to team up with it on several major issues. Others were saying that the deregulation-oriented Progress and restrictive Center are too far apart politically to ever be able to cooperate, while some Center politicians are already eager to remind voters that “the reason fur farmers haven’t received full compensation (yet) is because Progress didn’t allow it while in government.” They’ll also point out that Progress seemed very consolidation-oriented while in government, not locally oriented like Center always has been.

New majorities likely to form
There’s little doubt that some policies may actually be reversed with Progress in government. Those favouring the power cable to the UK, for example, are now on thin ice, as are those wanting to build more controversial windmills in the mountains and along the coastline. There now may well be a majority in Parliament against the power cable and for giving local governments veto rights over windmill projects.

Climate and environmental activists remain encouraged, despite the uncertainty over wind power. With Progress and its strong support for ongoing oil exploration out of the government, new majorities may form in favour of limiting exploration in the Arctic and even easing restricting asylum and immigration policy.

“The Progress Party has restricted climate policies and immigration policy, and has hindered Norwegian solidarity regarding the future for our children and people in need,” stated Une Bastholm, a Member of Parliament for the Greens Party, right after Progress’ government exit. “It will be exciting to see whether Erna Solberg will make the climate, what’s best for children and nature higher priorities than they’ve been so far.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund