UPDATED: Norway’s embattled new fisheries minister Geir Inge Sivertsen, now facing a lack of confidence vote in Parliament, decided to resign Friday evening after weeks of controversy. His resignation comes after a steady stream of revelations that he wrongly sought unwarranted severance pay, failed to declare or fully disassociate himself from various board positions, and had been a member of the secretive Masons, in which other members are involved in the seafood industry. All that came just as Norway’s ministry in charge of fisheries and trade needs to command respect in critical negotiations over North Sea fishing rights with the UK post-Brexit.
The pressure on Sivertsen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who appointed him, had risen on Friday. “Prime Minister Erna Solberg should put the reputation of (Norway’s) fishing industry ahead of holding a protective hand over Fisheries Minister Sivertsen,” the leader of Norway’s coastal fishing organization (Norsk Kystfiskarlag), Arne Pedersen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday afternoon. “The minister seems to be quite messy when it comes to having order over his economy. That can undoubtedly hurt the reputation of the entire fishing industry.”
While other fishing industry officials had been reluctant to comment on the controversy swirling around Sivertsen, Pedersen made it clear that he thought Sivertsen should resign or be removed from his post, and he was not alone. “I can’t see any solution other than that he’s got to go,” Terje Aasland, a Member of Parliament and trade policy spokesman for Labour, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. Labour supported a proposal put forward Friday afternoon by its former government partner, the Socialist Left party (SV), to formally declare a lack of confidence in Sivertsen.
“Either he’s just very disorganized in his personal affairs, or he just doesn’t comply with the law,” Aasland said of Sivertsen. “Both are just as bad.” While SV claimed Sivertsen lacked an understanding of his role as a government minister, Labour claimed he’s “not qualified” to be member of a government cabinet.
‘Difficult to do a good job…’
Sivertsen himself finally concluded on Friday that he should resign, because all the “cleaning up” he’d been ordered to do by Solberg was taking too much time and attention away from his new ministerial duties. He said he therefore “asked Prime Minister Erna Solberg to resign as fisheries minister.” She was due to hold a press conference Friday evening.
“The (fishing and seafood) industry deserves a minister who can have full concentration on the job that must be done,” Sivertsen stated in a press release. He added that the situation had become a burden on both the government his party (the Conservatives). “I have cleaned up,” he stated, “but my impression is that all these issues … make it difficult to do a good job as fisheries minister.”
SV had put forward its lack-of-confidence proposal, meant to spur either the resignation or firing of Sivertsen, after Solberg failed to replace him at Friday’s weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace. SV had given Solberg a deadline of Friday afternoon to “show the leadership needed to clean up in this case” by asking for Sivertsen’s resignation. When she failed to do so, despite all the revelations about Sivertsen’s ignorance of law and procedure, SV announced it would move forward with a lack of confidence proposal in Parliament.
Sivertsen had been unwilling to resign himself, telling Aftenposten earlier this week that “I’m motivated to continue as fisheries minister. It’s an extremely exciting ministerial post for an important business.” Norway’s fishing and seafood industry is the country’s second-largest after oil.
‘Not aware’ of the rules
Sivertsen had opted to respond to every recent media revelation about his rule-breaking, poor judgment and alleged greed by claiming he wasn’t aware of the regulations that applied when he was appointed as a state secretary in early November. Nor was he allegedly aware of those that applied when he later, in January, was appointed as fisheries minister after the Progress Party withdrew from Solberg’s conservative coalition government. Sivertsen has also repaid the NOK 120,000 in severance pay to which he was not entitled, claimed to have resigned from board positions that he shouldn’t hold while being part of government, and resigned from the Masons after Solberg advised him to do so.
The embattled minister claimed he hadn’t been an “active” Mason “for a long time.” He had also said he felt entitled to receive double pay from both his home municipality (where he’d been mayor with a term running until January 1st) and the state (when he became a state secretary in November). He still must defend himself against fraud charges filed by the Reds party’s youth group, which has compared his active attempts to receive unwarranted severance pay to welfare fraud.
Sivertsen has also received pay for being a member of a national county council, even though he admitted he had done “nothing” because there had been no council meetings. He said he would pay back the NOK 27,375 he’s received for “doing nothing” so far this year. On Friday, Aftenposten reported that even though Sivertsen had declared that he resigned all board posts he’d held when he became a state secretary in November, he signed documents in his capacity as board leader of a construction firm in mid-January.
Solberg controversially continued to support her fellow Conservative Party member despite all the uproar. She continued to claim that Sivertsen, who’s from Northern Norway, would “be a good fisheries minister.” She conceded that Sivertsen had appeared to be “messy, we agree on that, but Geir Inge has apologized and will clean up” the “messes” that had emerged.
Post-Brexit issues loom
Others claim that not only was his credibility at stake, so is Norway’s since he’ll need to act in Norway’s best interests overseeing negotiations over new fishing rights with his British counterparts after Great Britain leaves the EU. He was in London just this week to meet his British counterpart George Eustice.
“We are dependent on our fisheries minister having confidence,” Aasland of Labour told Aftenposten on Thursday, “but it’s difficult to relate to him now. The impression I have right now is that he says one thing and does another. That doesn’t make him a person that you can rely on.” That was strong criticism from within the Norwegian Parliament, for a man in a position that represents Norway abroad.
Even a former justice minister for the Progress Party, Per-Willy Amundsen, had demanded Sivertsen’s resignation. That raised speculation that the lack-of-confidence proposals backed by Labour, SV and presumably other left-center opposition parties, might win majority support from Progress.
Several Norwegian newspapers also editorialized that Sivertsen was not suited to be Norway’s fisheries minister: “Even if the closet was empty of skeletons now, the fisheries minister should resign,” wrote commentator Andreas Slettholm in Aftenposten on Wednesday, even before the latest revelations were published. In addition to all the transgressions and botched “cover-up,” Slettholm contended that Sivertsen was “poorly prepared” for a live radio debate on his case this week and had “weak answers.” Many continue to call Sivertsen “greedy” as well, including, according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), some members of his own party.
Meanwhile the clock is running to get in place post-Brexit agreements between Norway and Great Britain, where government officials may have been following “the Sivertsen affair” with interest. At a time when the British reportedly want “to take back control” over their own waters, and conflicts loom over fishing quotas, Norway faces what DN called “the most comprehensive and potentially complicated negotiations about fish that Norway has been through since the 1970s.”
Questions thus arose over whether Sivertsen was the right man to be leading them, while others worry over whether British leaders will even have time to deal with Norway when they also have to strike new deals with so many other countries. Aftenposten reported Friday that Norwegian business organizations wonder whether the UK has enough bureaucrats to strike new deals with not only the EU, but the US, Japan, India and many other economies much bigger than Norway’s.