When Norway’s top politicians gathered on a hilltop in Arendal for their first major pre-election debate earlier this week, the setting was perhaps unwittingly symbolic. Called Fløyheia, the site has raised plenty of debate itself in recent years, because of budget overruns on construction of a fancy glass elevator built to help the politicians and all other users rise to the top themselves.
The elevator itself was controversial from the very beginning. Locals have earlier walked or driven up to the top, home of Arendal’s old seafarers’ school, for years. Many didn’t see the need to spend NOK 50 million on an elevator and new observation platform. Arendal residents have been hit with some hefty increases in property taxes lately, and many felt their tax money could be better spent on more important things.
Then the elevator’s budget burst and it ended up costing double what taxpayers had been told: NOK 100 million. It was supposed to be ceremoniously opened just a week before Norway’s elite and the media descended on the historic coastal city for this week’s annual Arendalsuka, to discuss major issues of the day.
Arendal Mayor Robert C Nordli of the Labour Party ended up being publicly embarrassed when an irritated taxpayer, 62-year-old Leif Kydland, strolled up to the formally dressed Nordli and cut the ribbon himself before Nordli had a chance.
“I did it as a demonstration of incorrect use of taxpayers’ money,” Kydland later told equally surprised reporters covering the event. “If we’d been a wealthy municipality where we don’t need to worry about funding, the situation would have been different, but even then it would have been wrong to spend NOK 100 million (USD 11.4 million) for a little elevator. The view is already there, you only needed to walk up the hill.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) caught the entire stunt on video (external link to NRK, in Norwegian) along with Mayor Nordli quickly trying to reattach the ribbon in order to cut it again himself. Kydland, who stole the show at the opening, told NRK that “if the taxpayers had to pay for all this, it should be a taxpayer who cuts the ribbon.” Nordli told local newspaper Agderposten that at least now people can choose to walk up to the viewpoint or take the elevator, which is free of charge.
“We were able to open it as we should and that’s the most important,” Nordli told Agderposten.
Visitors, meanwhile, were clearly enjoying the swift ascent to the top and the view over the scenic city, its harbour and out to sea. There were no big crowds at the opening nor the next day either, when visitors came and went.
Political commentator Hege Ulstein was among those noting parallels between the elevator debate and the party leader debate on Wednesday, where the top of the glass elevator could be spotted in the background. “There are many ways of getting up to the top,” she wrote in newspaper Dagavisen. “You can be driven (as were many of the party leaders participating in Monday’s debate), you can be swept up in the spectacular and controversial elevator or you can trudge up the steep trail by foot, while you notice that your pulse rate rises.
“The nine party leaders who took part in the debate know that it’s the same in politics. You can rise to top at high speed, or after patient hard work.”