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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Parliament opened under a cloud

The sun was shining outside, but the 168th session of Norway’s Parliament (Stortinget) ceremoniously opened on Tuesday under a cloud of recent scandals, conflicts of interest and an unpopular minority government struggling to survive. Several top politicians face questioning by the parliament’s disciplinary committee, and they’re all aware of a pressing need to win back public confidence.

Norway’s Parliament traditionally opens with everyone standing while the monarch reads the government’s address from the throne. Members of government remain standing throughout the opening ceremonies.  PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

They were all there: Members of Parliament dressed up for the occasion, King Harald and Crown Prince Haakon in full regalia, government ministers standing at attention, the leaders of all state directorates and branches of the military service plus some foreign ambassadors invited to observe it all.

This year, however, they were gathering just three weeks after the Labour-led government suffered huge losses in local elections. Four government ministers have landed in trouble over conflicts of interest, most recently Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt. Then the head of the opposition, Conservatives leader and former prime minister Erna Solberg, also got into trouble similar to Huitfeldt’s: their husbands both bought and sold shares in Norwegian companies, and such stock trading violated regulations meant to keep top politicians impartial.

Newspaper Dagsavisen has editorialized that both the government and Parliament have been all but rendered “impotent” in Norway. Lawmakers were warned by the Council of Europe nearly a decade ago that much more openness is needed around politicians’ own economic interests. Parliament was even advised to log not only their investments but also those of their spouses, but Dagsavisen noted how that was rejected based on privacy concerns.

Now both Members of Parliament (MPs) and government ministers are required to disclose their own shareholdings, but family members are not. On Tuesday the Socialist Left Party (SV) followed through on multiple calls from professors, economists and not least media commentators to change that.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, head of the Norwegian Labour Party, formally presented his government’s address to King Harald, who then read it aloud at Tuesday’s opening of Parliament. PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

SV is proposing a string of new regulations and bans on stock trading while top politicians are in office, in an effort to “clean up.” Newspaper Klassekampen reported that SV thinks Norwegian politics is suffering from a new lack of confidence among voters, which also could have contributed to relatively low voter turnout in last month’s local elections.

“We need rules that are stronger and more clear,” SV’s Audun Lysbakken told Klassekampen. The former SV leader, now a member of the parliament’s disciplinary committee, is promoting a ban on stock trading by all ministers, their political advisers and state secretaries for as long as they’re in government.

MP Audun Lysbakken of SV (left) chatting with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre right after the last national election in 2021 that left Støre and his Labour Party leading a minority government coalition with the Center Party. They rely on SV for a majority in Parliament. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

SV also thinks all lobbyists visiting Parliament or individual MPs should be registered along with the issues they’re taking up, along with a similar “lobby register” of all those visiting government ministries. All government ministers, SV believes, should also register all their former jobs and connections to any PR advisers or consultants.

Top politicians should also be required to freeze any stock holdings they have once elected, according to SV, and not be allowed to buy shares or sell their own for as long as they hold office. The reason: possible knowledge of policy or proposed policy that could affect companies in which they own shares, and put them at risk for insider trading.

“It’s reasonable to expect that stock trading is something (politicians) should set aside for a period,” Lysbakken said. “It’s not possible to combine stock trading with a ministerial position, and it should be possible to freeze holdings.”

Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum has already banned stock trading by all employees of the finance ministry until his proposed state budget is presented later this week. The office of the president of the parliament is also discussing limits on share trading, and plans meetings with all parties represented in Parliament.

At issue is growing concern that the confidence Norwegians have traditionally had in their leaders is eroding further, after earlier scandals involving sexual harassment and exploitation of travel and housing benefits for MPs. Bent Sofus Tranøy, a professor at colleges in Oslo and Innlandet county, recently wrote in Klassekampen that more and more top politicians are being caught at efforts to enrich themselves. “Something is rotten in the political elite,” he wrote, while others like former judge Tor Langbach even fear relationships between top politicians and prosecutors can influence which cases get investigated and which don’t. The Norwegian police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim is still deciding whether to launch an investigation into the share trading by Solberg’s husband Sindre Finnes, and how much she really knew about it.

Norway’s Labour-Center government standing at attention during the opening of Parliament on Tuesday. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (front row right) is standing next to his finance minister from the Center Party, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. Sanding in the second row to the left of Vedum is Foreign Minister Anniken Huifeldt, who’s in trouble over her husband’s stock trading that has landed her in conflicts of interest. At far right is Queen Sonja and standing in the compartment at right are members of the diplomatic corps in Norway, including the US ambassador. PHOTO: Stortinget/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

Business and Trade Minister Jan Christian Vestre is being urged, meanwhile, to sharpen laws aimed at preventing conflicts of interest. Others claim politicians like Lysbakken are overreacting, with Conservatives MP Michael Tetzschner claiming that politicians should still be allowed to own shares and trade them. The Reds Party has been calling for a full ban on shareholdings by state politicians.

“That’s a huge overreaction,” Tetzschner told Klassekampen. “I very much support openness, but then it’s up to the voters to decide who they have confidence in. We should have a rule to secure transparency, and perhaps consider an obligation for those closest to politicians (spouses or partners).”

Erna Solberg was present on opening day in Parliament, smiling from her seat as she keeps trying to fend off the storm raging around her. She had to submit a written report of her own husband’s share trading to the parliament’s disciplinary committee on Tuesday, as Norway’s lawmakers got back to work after the long summer recess.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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