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Parliament scolds own members

The Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee handed out its toughest possible criticism on Wednesday against several fellow and former top politicians, after they’d all landed in various conflicts of interest. Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives received the most severe criticism, threatening her plans to win back government power in the next election.

Peter Frølich of the Conservative Party leads the Parliament’s disciplinary committee and also led the way into its long-awaited press conference on Wednesday. At left, Grunde Almeland of the Liberal Party, who was in charge of the committee’s nine-month investigation into several conflicts of interest involving Members of Parliament and the government. PHOTO: Stortinget

The committee unanimously and across party lines determined that it was “strongly critical” of Solberg’s failure to halt or even question her husband’s massive stock-trading activity during her two terms as prime minister from 2013 to 2021. The committee futher agreed, also across party lines, that if Solberg’s offenses had surfaced during her time in office, she would have had to resign.

“This is very serious,” said committee leader Peter Frølich, a Conservative himself who voted with the committee’s majority in handing down its severe assessment of his own party’s leader. Other committee members said Solberg’s offenses were by far the most serious of all six cases examined, especially because they involve so many stock-trading transactions over so many years.

“Solberg gets the strongest possible reaction to her conflicts of interest (called habilitet in Norwegian) and that’s unanimous from everyone,” said Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left Party. “We can’t stress enough how unique and deeply serious it is when a prime minister is not impartial in a series of cases, over many years. In SV’s view, it’s clear that if these cases were known while Solberg was prime minister, she would not have been able to continue as prime minister.” Committee members from Solberg’s former coalition partners including the Progress and Liberal parties, agreed.

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg with her press chief Cato Husabø Fossen, right after she’d testified before the Parliament’s disciplinary committee last fall. She has apologized for how she failed to monitor her husband’s errant stock trading while she was prime minister but hasn’t resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and still hopes to become prime minister again after the next election in 2025. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

The committee also criticized both Solberg’s government and the current Labour-Center government led by Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre over poor routines for handling cases involving conflicts of interest. The committee contends that various ministries have various methods of applying and enforcing regulations, and that ministers themselves were not made fully aware of their own obligations.

Solberg, who’s currently traveling in Asia, responded through her public relations chief Cato Husabø Fossen that she’d expected strong criticism from the committee, “and I completely agree that the criticism is justified. I have also said that before.” She claimed she has “taken responsibility” for the conflicts “and made it clear that I should have asked more questions (of her husband, Sindre Finnes) and dug more, so I could have uncovered (his trading in shares of companies doing business with the government, for example) this earlier. She has not offered to step down as her party’s leader and she still wants to make a comeback as prime minister in the next national election in 2025.

Neither of her former government coalition partners on the non-socialist side of Norwegian politics has confirmed, though, whether they’ll still support Solberg as prime minister again. Progress’ representative on the committee, Hans Andreas Limi, claimed on Wednesday that Solberg “chose to ‘not know'” what her husband was up to with his controversial investment activity. Limi equated Solberg’s case to that of former foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt, whose husband was also buying and selling shares in companies in which the state has stakes. “We therefore think both Erna Solberg and Anniken Huitfeldt have behaved in a manner worthy of the strongest criticism,” Limi said, although Huitfeldt has received merely a “critical” assessment.

Members of the Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee, delivering the results of their lengthy investigation into conflicts of interest among top politicians. From left: Lan Marie Berg of the Green party, Seher Aydar of the Reds Party, Audun Lysbakken of SV, Hans Andreas Limi of the Progress Party, Nils Bjørke of the Center Party, Peter Frølich of the Conservatives, Frode Jacobsen of Labour and Grunde Almeland of the Liberal Party. PHOTO: Stortinget

The committee also delivered criticial assessments of the five other top politicians who got into trouble last year: Former Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen, former Foreign Minister Huitfeldt and former Education-, now Labour Minister Tonje Brenna, all from the Labour Party; the Center Party’s former government minister in charge of higher education Ola Borten Moe and Trade Minister Jan Christian Vestre, also from the Labour Party. Vestre, however, was all but acquitted because his conflicts weren’t so serious, but his ministry was criticized for not doing a better job of controlling conflicts involving share trading by politicians or their close family members.

The committee has spent the past nine months investigating the various offenses involving the top politicians or their spouses. Grunde Almeland, a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party that has shared government power with Solberg’s Conservatives, said in his opening remarks that the investigation was “absolutely necessary” if the Parliament is to restore public confidence in its political leaders.

Almeland said the committee also felt a need to hold the top politicians responsible for their actions. Its members thus stopped short of being “strongly critical” of Trettebergstuen and Moe since both resigned immediately when their conflicts of interest became known. Moe’s personal share trading in defense contractor Kongsberg, which does lots of business with the state, has also been under investigation by Norway’s white-collar crime unit Økokrim, so the committee isn’t pursuing more action against him now.

Grunde Almeland, a Member of Parliament for the non-socialist Liberal Party, has played a key role in the Parliament’s investigation in political wrongdoing. PHOTO: Stortinget

The committee confirmed that some of its members thought former Foreign Minister Huitfeldt also should have been slapped with a “strongly critical” assessment, since she also failed to question or confront her husband over his stock market investments. She did not voluntarily resign, but lost her post when Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre “renewed” his ministerial lineup and left her out of it. He has since controversially been offered the post of Norway’s ambassador to the US.

Brenna, now Norway’s Labour Minister, was in more trouble on Wednesday after newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that she knew money she’d been part of allocating would also benefit Utøya AS, the firm charged with rebuilding the island hit by terrorism and where her former partner and the father of her two children is on the board. Two of her personal friends are also members of Utøya’s board.

Tonje Brenna and Jan Christian Vestre were both named as deputy leaders of the Norway’s Labour Party last year, in addition to being government ministers. Both are survivors of the terrorist attack on Norway’s former Labour government in 2011 and on the island of Utøya, and were viewed as a means of revitalizing the struggling Labour Party. Instead they’ve both wound up in conflicts of interest. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Brenna, who’s also a deputy leader of the Labour Party, is one of the few government ministers who’s so far survived all the conflict of interest scandals last year. She has claimed she has “been open about my mistakes all along,” and Prime Minister Støre has not replaced her, like he replaced Labour’s Trettebergstuen.

Committee also proposes reforms:
In addition to assessing the errant ministers’ roles, the Parliament’s disciplinary is also proposing several measures aimed at avoiding such conflicts of interest in the future. They include an analysis of how the ministries interpret regulations and carry them out, improvements in how new ministers are informed of regulations meant to avoid conflicts of interest, renewal of the the regulatons themselves and better routines for enforcing them.

The most important goal of the committee’s work is to restore public confidence in Norway’s leaders. After several years of various political scandals, Norwegians’ traditional faith in their political leaders has long been wearing thin.

“We seem to now have a ‘political elite’ that has operated under different rules than everyone else,” said Berg of the Greens Party, “and all these cases undermine democracy.” Berg also thinks Solberg’s candidacy as prime minister can weaken democracy, too, while noting that the current Støre government has proposed several measures aimed at reducing transparency and “hindering insight” into government operations. Such measures have also met strong criticism, and been rejected.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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