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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Parliament opens amidst crises

King Harald V read what many called the most serious speech from the throne they’d ever heard during the formal annual opening of the Norwegian Parliament on Monday. Members of Parliament themselves, meanwhile, are also trying to recover from last year’s scandals over misuse of benefits and severance pay that still haven’t been resolved.

PHOTO: Stortinget/Morten Brakestad

It’s the one day of the year when the king, accompanied by the queen and crown prince, enters Parliament (Stortinget) for an hour of traditional and carefully orchestrated formalties.

PHOTO: Stortinget/Morten Brakestad

It’s meant to symbolize the separation of powers among monarch, the government, elected MPs and top state bureaucrats while all are gathered under one roof. The throne has been moved in for the occasion, all Members of Parliament are in place, leaders of all state directorates stand to the right, members of the government stand to the left and the diplomatic corps is represented by various ambassadors seated nearby.

PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

This year the king’s annual trontale (speech from the throne, written by the government but delivered by the monarch) reflected troubled times: “There is war in Europe, widespread drought and flooding caused by climate change, and there are rising prices, increasing interest rates and an acute energy crisis in large parts of the world,” King Harald read from the papers handed to him by the prime minister. “Norway is not shielded from what is happening in the rest of the world and Europe. Our security policy has changed dramatically since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and we are feeling the effects of the energy shortage and soaring prices.”

PHOTO: Stortinget/Morten Brakestad

It was a sobering start to Monday’s formal opening of Parliament, which followed a week that saw a sharp escalation of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and explosions believed to be caused by sabotage that severely damaged two gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. That suddenly made Norway’s own pipelines and oil industry infrastructure targets themselves. The government, with all its ministers standing at attention, stressed in its remarks for the king to deliver that “we can surmount these challenges if we stand together, if we work together with our allies and partners in the international community, and if we make the right decisions.”

PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

By the time the king could turn over his speech and another “State of the Nation” speech delivered by the government to the Parliament’s president, everyone had been told that “the decisions we make now, during this period of turbulence, could determine what our country looks like not just this year and next year, but for decades to come. We must make the right decisions to safeguard our common values, promote peace and solidarity across the world and contribute to a peaceful Europe.”

Several MPs including former Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives and the leader of the Liberal Party, Guri Melby, commented afterwards on the unusually somber tone of the speech, with Solberg telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she thinks all nine political parties represented in Parliament are aware of the seriousness of the situation and are cooperating.

PHOTO: Stortinget/Morten Brakestad

Monday’s events also marked the first time a new acting administrative leader of the Parliament, Kyrre Grimstad, was in place to greet King Harald. Grimstad replaced Marianne Andreassen in late June, after she resigned amidst charges of negligent data security at the Parliament, which made it subject to a major hacking attack in 2020. The Parliament’s administration has also been caught up in an ongoing conflict over how MPs and some politicians at the Office of the Prime Minister haven’t been taxed on generous housing and travel benefits. Several MPs along with present and former government ministers are now receiving bills for back taxes because not enough taxes were withheld from their paychecks. Conflicts loom.

A full audit of the various benefit packages for MPs and political appointments, meanwhile, is underway. Andreassen has said she’s sure the Parliament “will emerge stronger from the various processes going on.” Grimstad is now charged with continuing the “clean-up” work as acting director “until a permanent director is in place.”

PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

It will also be up to this man, Parliament President Masud Gharahkhani, to oversee reforms of how the Parliament is run. Gharahkhani, whose family came to Norway as refugees from Iran when he was a child, noted now the 167th session of the Norwegian Parliament was opening “at a time of great concern for the citizens of Norway and Europe” after a “dramatic” year so far. Years of prosperity suddenly seem threatened “and common to us all is that we live in turbulent times.” He noted how Kyiv is only 140 kilometers farther from Oslo than Vardø in Northern Norway, and that war and atrocities that were never supposed to happen again “are happening again.”

Gharahkhani, who recently spoke out against the death of a young woman while in police custody in Iran, personalized his own address to Parliament by noting that “not all of us were born into democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of the press” and that “some of us live with the daily reminder that fighting for these values would cost you your life if, right now, you lived in the country you were born in.” He has no doubt that “deliberations in the committee room and debates in the Storting will be long and hard” but that “how we as a national assembly elect to solve (its challenges) will define the future.”

Debate over the government’s State of the Nation address runs though Tuesday and Wednesday. The government’s proposed state budget for next year will be presented on Thursday. Berglund



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