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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Storting’s president under pressure

The new president of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), who ranks second only to the king, suddenly seems to be a bit small. Eva Kristin Hansen of the Labour Party is the latest top politician to admit to wrongfully accepting use of one of the Parliament’s fully paid commuter apartments in the capital. Her admission came only after her hometown newspaper exposed her wrongdoing, and she’s rejecting calls for her resignation.

The new president of the Norwegian Parliament, Eva Kristin Hansen, admitted to the equivalent of feeling small on Wednesday, after newspaper Adresseavisen reported how she’d been using a free, taxpayer-financed commuter apartment in Oslo when she actually lives too close to the capital to qualify. “I’m not doing well today,” she told state broadcaster NRK, but has no intention of resigning. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

“I’m motivated to clean up regulations that I have misunderstood myself,” Hansen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Her comments came after her hometown newspaper in Trondheim, Adresseavisen, had reported on her folly: She continued to use a fully paid commuter apartment in Oslo for three years when she actually was living in Ski, just 29 kilometers south of the capital. She also told newspaper VG that she’d also allowed a colleague in Parliament who was going through a separation to stay in the taxpayer-funded residence.

The parliament’s rules on the housing benefit for Members of Parliament require that MPs can only qualify for a commuter apartment if they live more than 40 kilometers from the capital where Parliament is located. Hansen has long represented her home district of Trondheim (more than 500km from Oslo) and kept Trondheim as her officially registered address, by renting a room in an apartment from Labour Party colleague Trond Giske for NOK 4,000 a month.

Since 2014, however, she and her new partner at the time have owned a home in Ski (Nordre-Follo), south of Oslo. Hansen neglected to officially report her move to Ski until after the election in 2017, when she also finally gave up what she still thought had been her right to the all-expenses-paid apartment in Oslo. Adresseavisen reported that she had access to one of the Parliament’s apartments for a total of 12 years.

“I didn’t think I’d broken any rules,” Hansen told NRK Wednesday afternoon, after a day of drama at the Parliament. After “checking” with the Parliament’s administration, however, she told NRK that she “should have informed them that I’d owned a home in Nordre-Follo since 2014” and no longer needed to commute home to Trondheim on weekends.

Hansen insisted that she has used the commuter apartment she was granted, often after late-night meetings in Oslo. “I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” she told NRK. “If anyone thinks that the president of the Storting has tried to cheat, I think that’s sad. I have not done that.”

She claims it was “important” to her to remain officially registered as living in Trondheim where her constituency was based, even though she didn’t live there anymore. “I have rented in Trondheim, paid rent in Trondheim and been registered (in the national registry known as Folkeregister) there,” Hansen told NRK. “I thought I fulfulled all the criteria.”

Marianne Andreassen, head of administration at the Parliament, has also been under pressure for failing to better monitor MPs’ benefits. A full review is now underway. PHOTO: Stortinget

The Parliament’s own administration has been under fire itself this fall for failing to better monitor use of its commuter apartments that are a significant benefit for MPs who also earn nearly NOK 1 million a year. Some MPs have been asked or felt compelled to repay benefts they wrongly received, along with taxes they should have paid on the benefits. Hansen, who now earns NOK 1.7 million (USD 204,200) as president of the Parliament, says she’s now willing to do the same if asked.

Ironically enough, Hansen was left in charge, along with the Parliament’s administration, of “cleaning up” up the Parliament’s benefits systems that have been exploited by some politicians. Newspaper Aftenposten has reported extensively about the commuter apartment misuse, newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported on the misuse of severance pay for MPs and government officials, and there’s also been a string of scandals around politicians’ expense accounts. Among those also found to have engaged in questionable use of a commuter apartment is Hansen’s own predecessor, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen of the Conservative Party. Now Hansen needs to “clean up” after herself, but an external commission is being formed to evaluate the entire system.

Indignation in Parliament
MP Rasmus Hansson of the Greens Party has called for Hansen’s resignation from the post to which she was elected just last month. MP Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the Progress Party, has asked Hansen to “evaluate her position” even though several Progress MPs have also been caught and even jailed for misusing benefits. “We also want to call her into Parliament to present her version of the case,” Listhaug told NRK.

A law professor at the University of Bergen, Hans Fredrik Marthiniussen, told news bureau NTB that he thinks Hansen consciously avoided telling the Parliament’s administration that she was living in Ski. “This is the most serious case I’ve seen in the cases about commuter residence,” he told NTB.

Hansen’s own Labour Party and its government partner, the Center Party, have predictably expressed support for her and think it’s sufficient to simply apologize. Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV) that’s currently in state budget negotiations with both Labour and Center, isn’t so sure. He told NRK late Wednesday that he still has questions that need to be answered. MP Henrik Asheim of the Conservative Party had earlier in the day asked Hansen “to lay all her cards on the table and respond to questions from the media.”

Hansen (right) took over as Stortingspresident after Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen last month. Now they both face questions over their use of all-expenses-paid commuter apartments. PHOTO: Stortinget

She eventually did, after initially refusing to answer questions from Adresseavisen. “Several MPs have been made aware that that they misunderstood the rules tied to commuter apartments,” Hansen initially wrote in an email to the paper. “I am unfortunately among them. I can’t do anything other than apologize for not having checked the rules more thoroughly.”

She later sat down with NRK and several other reporters late Wednesday, but it remains a question whether the Parliament can maintain confidence in a president who hasn’t followed the Parliament’s own rules. Others have also noted that “ordinary Norwegians” have been jailed for misunderstanding welfare rules and wrongly receiving benefits, while top politicians often get away with merely apologizing.

Hansen stressed that “if the Storting’s president can misunderstand, many others can too. It’s important to have clear rules.” She doesn’t want to resign, however, even though some MPs are now questioning her credibility:

“I have been elected as the president of Stortinget (The Parliament) with the confidence of Parliament, and have no plans to do anything else.” Berglund



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