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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Culture minister resigns ‘in shame’

The Norwegian government has been hit by its second conflict of interest this week involving appointments at the ministerial level. In the new case, the conflict is so serious that the government minister in charge of culture and equality issues, Anette Trettebergstuen, had to tearfully announce her resignation.

Anette Trettebergstuen of the Labour Party has been Norway’s culture minister since 2021. Now she’s had to resign in shame over several conflicts of interest. PHOTO: Kultur- og likestillingsdepartementet

“I am so sorry that my mistakes also affect others, all the fantastic people in the  fields of culture and equality, my colleagues in the government and everyone else I’ve disappointed,” said Trettebergstuen, who represents the Labour Party, at a hastily arranged press conference in Oslo Friday morning.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre arguably tops the list of those disappointed. He had to postpone an annual and more festive pre-summer press briefing in order to deal with the latest trouble within his government. Earlier in the week his education minister Tonje Brenna, also a new deputy leader of the Labour Party, had to admit to several conflicts of interest herself regarding appointments of friends to official posts. Brenna hasn’t resigned, though, and Støre claims he still has confidence in her as the Parliament launches an investigation into her case.

Trettebergstuen’s violations of the rules regarding conflicts of interest, however, were in “another category,” Støre told reporters when he faced them in a dark suit and tie at a much more sober meeting than the annual session initially planned before summer holidays. He said Trettebergstuen made “the right decision” in resigning because of the “serious” nature of her mistakes.

“Anette has on several occasions proposed and appointed good friends … to boards and other posts tied to her (ministerial) portfolio,” Støre said. He noted that she has acknowledged that “there was no doubt she was inhabil,” the Norwegian word used when someone is partial towards someone else and thus unable to act objectively based on merit.

“She has broken the rules and exhibited a lack of knowledge about the rules and what it means to be impartial,” Støre said. He was repeatedly questioned about why two of his ministers have lacked such knowledge, but Støre claimed ministers receive instructions, undergo reviews with ministerial administrators of any potential conflicts, are given a manual about the issues involved and “must take personal responsibility themselves” for evaluating their impartiality or lack thereof on a case-by-case basis.

Trettebergstuen admitted she simply had never examined the rules carefully enough, and is now lost her top political job over that. “I had the world’s best job as culture minister, I have enjoyed every single day,” she said at her own press conference. “I’m embarrased, I’m sad and I’m ashamed of myself, but I think it’s important to take the consequences of my mistakes.”

One of Trettebergstuen’s close friends, Bård Nylund, was among those considered last year for participation in a state commission studying men’s issues, but dropped because of his friendship with the minister. This spring, however, a state secretary in the ministry proposed Nylund for a seat on the board of the Norsk Folkemuseum, a position accompanied by a honorarium of NOK 90,000 a year. Trettebergstuen said she could declare herself inhabil, if the state secretary nominated him. That turned out not to be true but Nylund, godfather to Trettebergstuen’s child, was nominated and accepted the position with no evaluation of any conflicts of interest.

The now former culture minister also proposed another close friend, Tina Stiegler, to become a board member of the historic theater in Bergen, Den Nationale Scene. Trettebergstuen is godmother to Stiegler’s children and therefore also clearly partial. Both Stiegler’s name and two others proposed by Trettebergstuen (including former minister Monica Mæland from the Conservative Party) nonetheless landed on a list of candidates for the theater’s board presented by executive search firm Mercuri Urval. While one backed out, Stiegler was keen to take on the position as board leader.

Mercuri noted that Stiegler was “a quite good friend of the minister” and when the administrative leader at the ministry asked Trettebergstuen if it was “ok” with Stiegler (who’d made a good impression) as board leader, Trettebergstuen responded, “yes, fine.” The appointment was questioned, however, in another evaluation by the business and trade ministry, which legally “owns” entities like the theater. Trettebergstuen ended up having to declare a conflict of interest.

She also proposed another friend, Renate Larsen, to become a member of the board of the wholly state-owned Norwegian Opera and Ballet, a position that carries an honorarium of NOK 86,300 a year. Trettebergstuen and Larsen, according to the ministry, had met at a wedding in 2016 and are part of a group of friends that meets two or three times a year. Trettebergstuen claimed she’d considered herself impartial towards Larsen, who was elected to the Opera’s board on June 13.

After the conflict of interest case involving her government colleague Tonje Brenna flared up a week later, Trettebergstuen “reflected over her own handling of potential conflicts of interest,” according to the ministry. Only then did she ask for an evaluation of her impartiality towards Larsen from both her ministry’s administration and the Office of the Prime Minister. On June 21 she was informed she was not impartial after all, and that’s when she sat down for talks with the prime minister.

Now Trettebergstuen’s political career is in shambles, she’s had to resign and Prime Minister Støre must try to find a new Culture Minister before next week’s Council of State with King Harald V. Støre refused to answer questions whether the vacancy may allow a comeback for the former Labour Party star Hadia Tajik, a former culture minister in Jens Stoltenberg’s labour government who had to resign her own ministerial post in Støre’s government early last year amidst the scandal over housing benefits for politicians from outside Oslo.

Trettebergstuen’s resignation also comes just as annual Pride celebrations are beginning this weekend, starting with a memorial to last year’s mass shooting. As a gay minister herself, Trettebergstuen played an important role in Pride and had been expected to attend the memorial and oversee many other events over the next week, ending with the huge Pride parade on July 1.

“I have made many very serious mistakes in handling my own qualifications (to make officials appointments),” Trettebergstuen admitted at her emotional press conference on Friday. “I haven’t been conscious enough (of conflict of interest rules) and I wasn’t aware that when you’re partial, you can’t propose people you’re partial towards without also asking for a minister to take your place.

“This has been my responsibility alone,” she said. Her friends who took on the positions later tied to Trettebergstuen’s conflicts of interest are likely to lose their posts, too, reports VG, since their appointments are now considered invalid.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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