New government’s platform ‘too grey’

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The leaders of Norway’s Labour and Center parties didn’t exactly spark jubilation over the new government platform they could finally present Wednesday afternoon. Would-be supporters in Parliament found it “too grey,” and claimed the minority coalition will probably need to “slalom ski” between political parties on the left and right to get legislation passed.

Prime Minister-elect Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party (left) and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, expected to become finance minister, presented their new left-center government platform outdoors Wednesday afternoon after four weeks of negotiations in Hurdal, northeast of Oslo.PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“In order to win support from us, they’re going to have to give up some of their positions (on issues) and compromise,” Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV), told Norwegian Broacasting (NRK). His reaction came shortly after Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre and Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum released what they call the “Hurdal Platform,” named after the rural area north of Oslo where they’ve huddled in meetings since election results in September initially gave the left-center side a majority.

SV withdrew from the talks in Hurdal after the first week, however, after failing to agree with Labour and Center on too many important issues, especially the incoming government’s refusal to rein in the oil industry. Lysbakken and his SV colleagues don’t appear any more impressed now, especially after Støre and Vedum confirmed controversial plans to continue offshore oil exploration in new areas, also in the Arctic.

Still ‘a new direction’
Støre and Vedum, however, both claimed their platform will indeed “take Norway in a new direction” and “move away from the centralization carried out by their predecessors. Støre, due to become prime minister on Thursday, claimed the platform offers “fair and active climate policy” that will ensure emission reductions even though it will “develop instead of phase out the oil and gas industry.”

He and Vedum, expected to become finance minister, also announced plans on Wednesday to only “gradually” raise Norway’s carbon tax by 2030. SV and other pro-climate parties and organizations favoured the outgoing government’s immediate, sharp increase of nearly 30 percent in the carbon tax that also would immediately raise Norway’s already-high prices at the pump for both diesel and gasoline. Center firmly opposes fuel tax hikes, since many of its constituents live in rural areas and still rely heavily on their cars and trucks.

“In this platform there’s too much grey and too little red (signifying leftist policy in Norway) and too little green (signifying climate- and environmentally friendly policy),” Lysbakken said.

Støre and Vedum faced lots of questions at the press conference on their government platform in Hurum. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

That’s an ominous sign for Støre and Vedum, who still view SV as their most likely partner in Parliament since other parties on the left side of Norwegian politics are even more demanding. The new government’s leaders have both said they intend to seek support on issues first from Lysbakken and SV in order to form a majority in Parliament. If SV, which in turn is under pressure from Reds and Greens parties, doesn’t get its way, Støre and Vedum will either need to give in or turn to other parties on the centrist and conservative sides. That’s a tough thing to do for the Labour Party.

Climate and environmental organizations were disappointed with the new government’s platform, too. “I’m sad and sorry after my first reading of the platform,” Bellona founder Frederic Hauge told NRK. He was especially disappointed by the absence of concrete plans for carbon capture and storage, and complained formulation of most climate policy was “vague.”

Hauge was pleased by plans for state investment in battery production in Norway and a ban on oil production around the Træna reef off Northern Norway, which Bellona has actively protested, but said he “had really expected something completely different.” The leader of Naturvernforbundet, Truls Gulowsen, was also disappointed by the incoming government’s platform, especially because it also supports more restrictive wildlife policy that can lead to the shooting of far more wolves and other predators. Gulowsen further fears that the new government will continue to allow more development in scenic areas at the expense of forests and other nature.

Other issues are also sure to spark debate, with the platform covering the whole spectrum from foreign policy and defense to business, labour, health care, agriculture, social issues, culture and more.  Støre and Vedum claimed their goals are “to develop the entire country,” with an “active district policy” aimed at keeping remote areas populated. They promised “active business policy” as well, with more enforcement of workplace regulations and offers of investment in ventures that can help speed the transition to an economy that’s not so dependent on oil.

Støre, a former foreign minister under Jens Stoltenberg, vowed to return attention to Norway’s northernmost areas including the Arctic, also that  Norway’s trade and policy deal with the EU (called the EØS/EEA agreement) would remain fundamental. That indicates a defeat for Vedum, whose Center Party firmly opposes EU membership and has even wanted to replace the EØS pact with a new trade deal. Støre’s strong support for the EØS agreement will be especially interesting, given a decision by the EU Commission on Wednesday to halt oil activity in the Arctic and even threat to halt imports of oil and gas coming from the Arctic.

Details of the lengthy document will continue to emerge for days, and certainly come up over the next year on an issue-by-issue basis, but here’s a partial rundown of positions taken by the new government:

The move away from centralization means some of the recent forced mergers of counties and municipalities may be reversed. Vedum himself seemed eager to dismantle the huge and controversial Viken County and revive its three main components of Akershus, Buskerud and Østfold. Both he and Støre stressed, however, that it will be up to the local governments themselves to decide on any dismantling.

More support for health care is aimed at strengthening hospitals, subsidizing dental care for everyone up to age 21, providing better psychiatric care and improving Norway’s fastlege system that provides permanent primary care doctors for all Norwegians. Those battling to preserve Norway’s largest hospital, Ullevål in Oslo, however, were disappointed. The new government intends to proceed with plans to sell its large and highly attractive site in central Oslo and build a new high-rise hospital adjacent to the national Rikshospitalet, while also developing a new local Aker Hospital at Sinsen. Hospital proponents in Møre og Romsdal may be happier, given the government’s desire to secure a maternity ward in Kristiansund and local maternity care in Nordmøre, also after a new merged hospital for the area opens near Molde.

Some changes in the tax system loom, with lower taxes for those earning less than NOK 750,000 and higher taxes for those earning more. The government wants to remove a long-standing VAT exemption on electric cars costing more than NOK 600,000. It also wants to raise taxes on personal fortunes (net worth) but is vague on how it intends to tax the wealthy harder. Other tax changes included in the new state budget proposal may also be retained.

Other changes loom in workplace regulation, including new restrictions on temporary employment, measures to stop the growth of high management salaries in the public sector, doubling the deduction allowed for labour union dues, increases in deductions for commuting costs and an ability to both work and receive welfare benefits at the same time.

In the transport sector, the new government wants to seek an exemption from the EU’s railway reforms that could stop another round of bidding on lines around the Oslo area. The government also supports costly plans to extend train service north to Tromsø and wants to scrap taxi reform that would completely deregulate the tax business. The government is likely to obtain a majority for plans to scrap plans for a third runway at Norway’s gateway airport, Oslo Gardermoen. Ferry fares, meanwhile, will be cut in half where they’re part of national- and county highway systems, and eliminated on routes where no bridges are available.

Families emerged as winners in the government’s platform, which opens up for state financing of free after-school programs for all first-graders, reduces the maximum price for parents’ portion of subsidized day care and likely will include some of the tax breaks for parents with lots of children that were proposed by the outgoing Conservatives-led government. Labour and Center also want to start phasing in funding for meals at school.

Defense spending will increase again, with the new government promising a dedicated helicopter fleet for the Army that will be stationed at Bardufoss in Northern Norway. The Center Party had to give up its plan to reopen an air force base at Andøya, however, and settle for new funding for the local municipality, and plans for expansion of its local space industry.

Both Støre and Vedum claimed there had been a “genuine willingness” on behalf of both the Labour and Center parties “to find solutions” on difficult issues including abortion law, which ended with an agreement to consider alternatives to a current commission that must approve abortions after the 12th week. Center wants to maintain the commission while Labour wants to dissolve it and leave women free to choose to end a pregnancy until its 18th week. Both parties agreed to free up their Members of Parliament to vote based on personal beliefs.

There were areas where Labour’s positions clearly prevailed, but also Center’s, such as approval of a plan to “reduce the income gap” between farming and other work groups in Norway. That indicates more state financial support for farmers, one of the Center Party’s main constituencies.

“Labour and the Center Party have different views on many issues,” Støre conceded at Wednesday’s press conference on the new platform, “but we managed to come to terms through a lot of hard work and mutual respect.” He also claimed the platform was “warmly accepted” by both parties’ delegation.” Now the hard work begins, as the two parties try to win support from the Parliament as whole. Debate begins on Monday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund