Two new ministers stride into crisis

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Right in the middle of Norway’s biggest crisis in years, Prime Minister Erna Solberg also had to formally name two new cabinet ministers on Friday. It was a rush job that was the last thing Solberg needed on an already extraordinarily busy day.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg still managed to smile as she strode out of a short Council of State session at the Royal Palace on Friday with her two new ministers, right in the midst of the Corona virus crisis. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Eirin Larsen

Both ministerial appointments were also the result of unfortunate events. Solberg’s former fisheries minister Geir Inge Sivertsen had made questionable decisions that left him facing charges of cheating taxpayers, and he had to resign in late February after just a month in office.

That left Solberg having to scramble to find a new fisheries minister, just as important post-Brexit trade talks need to begin with Great Britain and just as Norway’s own fishing industry is an an uproar over fishing quotas. Many coastal communities also fear that fishing rights will be consolidated in the hands of large absentee owners and operators who don’t live in Northern Norway, where most of the fishing and fish-farming takes place.

Solberg’s most recent education minister, meanwhile, also felt compelled to resign earlier this week, just as the Corona crisis was reaching the boiling point. Trine Skei Grande also resigned as leader of her Liberal Party, after years of ongoing conflicts among her own restive party colleagues. Many thought Grande should have resigned long ago, and instead left in what several commentators considered an undignified manner at a very tough time for the government.

It all left Solberg facing yet another ministerial shuffle when she also needed to tackle the Corona crisis, ensure the public health and bolster the economy. The ministerial changes therefore didn’t get nearly the attention they usually warrant. Solberg simply had more important things to deal with and Friday’s weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace was short, with King Harald V giving his official nod from quarantine.

Even the new ministers’ traditional presentation on the palace grounds was cut back because of Corona infection concerns, with press coverage limited and only close family congratulating the two new ministers, both of whom must immediately take on challenging jobs.

Guri Melby, age 39,will now take over for Grande as education minister at a time when all of Norway’s schools are closed because of Corona infection fears. Melby is originally from Orkdal in Trøndelag but has spent much of her political career in Oslo. She has been active in the Liberal Party for 10 years, served as the City of Oslo’s government leader in charge of environmental and transport issues and most recently held Grande’s seat in Parliament after the Liberals joined Solberg’s conservative government coalition in January 2018.

“There’s no doubt this is an extremely special day to be named as Education Minister,” Melby stated after her appointment was official. With all elementary, junior high and high schools closed, she said her most important task will be “to take care of the children and all pupils.” Norway’s closed schools “shall not come at the expense of what they can learn.”

Norway’s new fisheries minister is not nearly as nationally known as Melby. Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen, a 55-year-old resident of Bodø in Northern Norway, is a former leader of the Conservatives’ chapter in Bodø who most recently has worked as a state secretary in the Oil and Energy Ministry.

Ingebrigtsen was also a long-time member of Bodø’s City Council and spent five years leading the city’s local development agency Bodøregionens Utviklingsselskap (BRUS). He was chief executive of Indre Salten Energi (ISE) before becoming the equivalent of deputy oil minister in January.

Now he’ll be in charge of Norway’s second-largest industry after oil and gas. Fishing and seafood generate enormous export income for the country and the industry had wanted a minister to come from Northern Norway, where much of the country’s fisheries operations are based.

“It was a surrealistic situation when Erna called and asked me (to be fisheries minister) a week ago,” Ingebrigtsen said. His appointment was kept under wraps until it finally leaked out Friday morning.

Solberg said Ingebrightsen will be given special responsibility for efforts to fight illegal fishing and to negotiate the new trade deal with the UK, to secure Norwegian access to to the British market.

Both Melby and Ingebrigtsen were officially taking over their new posts from 1pm, but the traditional ceremonies of new ministers receiving the keys to their new offices were closed to press coverage, because of Corona infection fears.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund