NEWS ANALYSIS: A former small town mayor with little international experience was appointed as Norway’s new defense minister on Tuesday. Bjørn Arild Gram of the farmer-friendly Center Party faced lots of tough questions at a press conference, also over his part in crude sexual harassment of his party’s former leader seven years ago.
Gram seems an unlikely choice for Norway’s Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, whose own political career is rooted in diplomacy and international affairs. Støre, however, probably had little choice in the matter: His former defense minister Odd Roger Enoksen, also from the Center Party, had to resign in shame this past weekend after newspaper VG reported on a lengthy extra-marital affair he’d had with a teenager when he was 50 and a minister in an earlier left-center government. Enoksen also had been the target of a recent complaint over sexual harassment of a Center Party colleague 20 years ago. He had to step down on Saturday, just a day after delivering a major plan for building up Norway’s woefully inadequate defenses.
That left Støre quickly needing a new defense minister in the middle of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, which has raised huge security concerns for Norway and the rest of Europe. Norway has been severely shaken by how one of its neighbouring countries (Russia) could or would invade another neighbour (Ukraine).
Støre also suddenly needed a new defense minister just as Norway’s week-long Easter holidays were beginning. His Center Party partner in his minority government coalition insisted on hanging on to the spot. Center then had to come up with a new ministerial candidate for the important defense post.
They settled, after three days, on Gram, as being among their most experienced politicians. Gram, age 49, was already serving as a government minister, in charge of local governments in Norway, and had led the large national organization KS that represents local governments (kommuner) in their role as employers. Before that he was mayor of Steinkjær in Trøndelag from 2007-2020. He has represented the Center Party from Trøndelag in various positions since 1995.
There was one other major challenge, however, in addition to Gram’s lack of international and defense experience: In 2018, Gram was part of a group of eight Center Party men who spent a weekend at a hytte (holiday cabin) together. During the course of the partying going on that weekend, one of the men who has never stepped forward to take the blame sent an obscene text message to the party’s current leader at the time, Liv Signe Navarsete. It was widely viewed as shocking proof of sexism and harassment at the highest levels of political parties and came just as the “MeToo” movement was sweeping the globe.
Gram has claimed all along that he didn’t send the message. The owner of the mobile telephone used to send it also pleaded innocent. None of the men, who also included the Center Party’s deputy leader Ola Borten Moe, admitted to being the culprit. Moe is also now a minister in Støre’s government, in charge of research and higher education, even though he lacks a university degree of his own.
The party ultimately let all eight men go unpunished, claiming that a probe into the ugly incident didn’t result in identifying any guilty parties. After Center’s now-shamed former minister Enoksen got in trouble, it emerged that the party only has one man handling complaints of sexual harassment, leading to calls for at least one woman to be part of any future probes. Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized on Tuesday that there’s a subculture of male supremacy in the Center Party that it still hasn’t shaken.
It’s all led to yet another crisis for Norway’s young but already troubled Labour-Center government coalition. The Enoksen scandal may harm the government more than the Center Party, although it has taken a dive in public opinion polls since claiming 13.5 percent of the vote in last fall’s election. Some recent polls have shown Center at now holding less than 7 percent. Støre and his Labour Party, meanwhile, have lost two ministers to scandal since January, leading political scientist Kim Arne Hammerstad to tell Dagsavisen that “it leaves an impression of a weak and chaotic government.”
It was also supremely ironic that the former defense minister Enoksen had to quit on Saturday, which happened to be April 9, the same infamous day that Norway was itself invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. “Never again the 9th of April,” goes the now famous slogan in Norway, as it’s tried to defend itself ever since, not least through its membership in NATO. Most agree the Cold War has returned, chillier than ever.
Questions remains as to why Enoksen never mentioned the affair he had with a young woman less than half his age, and why he never understood that it made him unsuitable to be Norway’s defense minister. Some security experts were claiming on NRK’s national radio Tuesday morning that Enoksen actually put Norway’s national security at risk. Foreign rivals could have resorted to extortion, they claim, arguing that politicians should have to comply with the same high security clearance regulations as other state employees.
Now Norway has a defense minister who was part of a “bad boys” weekend gathering that ended with exaggerated sexual harassment of their own party leader. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum “got tough” on them right afterwards, but none seems to have suffered any long-lasting damage or punishment.
Asked at Tuesday’s press conference whether he’d been plagued by the nasty case involving Gram four years ago, Støre said he had other, presumably more important, things plaguing him. He said Center had “thoroughly handled” the case “long before this government was established, and I have no reason to question Gram’s integrity because of it.”
Støre also said he’d looked for “a wise and experienced leader … who could go right into this job (as defense minister).” He clamed Gram has “a solid background and lots of experience,” and called him “thorough, hard-working and serious.” Støre said it was crucial for him to be able to rely fully on his ministers, especially his foreign- and defense ministers during the Ukrainian crisis.
“We have started major efforts to strengthen our defense,” Støre added. “It’s necessary, more necessary than I thought when we took over responsibility (last fall). That demands a defense minister with broad political experience. Norway will get that now.”
In transferring Gram to his new post, Støre also needed to replace him with a new minister in charge of local governments. The choice fell to Sigbjørn Gjelsvik, also of the Center Party. Gjelsvik has represented Akershus as a Member of Parliament, where he was a member of the finance committee. Now Gjelsvik, age 48, will be in charge of overseeing state funding for local governments and how they cooperate with the state.
“He’ll keep working on new proposals for the government district policy, which Bjørn Arild (Gram) started up,” Støre said. He claimed Gjelsvik “had all the qualifications” for the ministerial post.
The sudden changes in Støre’s cabinet prompted the need for an extraordinary Council of State at the Royal Palace on Tuesday, since the monarch or regent must approve such high-level government appointments. King Harald V had to interrupt his own Easter holiday week to preside over the meeting, since his son Crown Prince Haakon was on an official visit to Svalbard. “I’m very satifisied with how this has worked out,” Støre said, “and that the king has approved this.”
Gram, meanwhile, vowed that he and his party are intent on having “strong national defense. We will of course develop our work and our cooperation with our allies.”