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Another minister forced to resign

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had to demand the resignation of yet another member of his government on Friday, after Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol of his own Labour Party was formally accused of willfully cheating on her master’s thesis three years ago. She’s the latest government minister to get into trouble, and the most defiant.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre appeared weary at his Friday morning press conference, where he confirmed that he’d asked for the resignation of Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol. She’s the 10th minister he’s had to replace in his cabinet that initially numbered 19 members. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Mona Sæverud Higraff

Støre has had to replace more than half of his cabinet since his minority government with the Center Party assumed power in 2021. Some of the changes were tied to a  renewal effort last autumn, but eight of the replacements were sparked by conflicts of interest, inappropriate conduct or, as in Kjerkol’s case, plagiarism.

Her master’s thesis on leadership within the health care sector, co-authored with a fellow student and initially approved by Nord University just before she joined Støre’s government in 2021, was found in January to have contained suspicious similarities to earlier published works. “Ingvild denied it was a case of plagiarism or cheating,” Støre noted at a hastily called press conference on Friday, “and wanted to delay any reaction” until Nord University had examined her case.

“I have always made it clear that this was a matter between Nord University and the student(s),” said Støre, who’s often accused of being unclear and waffling on issues. He insisted on Friday, though, that he’d also “been clear that it’s the university that decides on master’s degrees, while I determine confidence in a government minister.”

Ingvild Kjerkol, shown here speaking at a recent Labour Party meeting, has often posed as defiant, especially when dealing with critical doctors and hospital administrators. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

On Thursday came the written conclusion of the university commission that re-examined Kjerkol’s thesis, and it was (in Kjerkol’s own words) brutal and unforgiving: “The commission concluded that her master’s thesis contains a considerable amount of plagiarisim that’s viewed as cheating under the law,” Støre said. “The commission also determined that it was intentional,” Støre added. The entire thesis itself was rendered null and void.

“On the background of that conclusion, I have determined that it is extremely difficult (for her) to carry out the ongoing, demanding work of a health minister,” Støre said. “I have therefore decided that Ingvild should resign as government minister.”

His decision was also made on the grounds that a Norwegian health minister, who among other things is in charge of the country’s hospitals and medical care, has “considerable responsibility for researchers and other professionals in a large and import sector in Norway.” In order for a health minister to perform well, those working in the sector must have confidence in the minister. “That has also weighed on my decision,” Støre said.

Kjerkol could no longer, in Støre’s view, command the confidence and respect needed in her position. Støre said he was “genuinely very sorry” that he needed to make the decision he did, noting that he has known and worked with Kjerkol for many years. He and called her “a very competent, hard-working politician, one of the best the Labour Party has,” and one of “the most productive, brave health minister Norway has had in recent times.”

The health minister’s post long been considered among the most important and demanding in any government, given the high costs of the health care sector and huge challenges in providing the best possible health care for a rapidly aging population at a time of huge technological change.

Unlike her former government colleague Sandra Borch, who resigned as minister in charge of higher education after acknowledging charges of plagiarism in her own master’s thesis, Kjerkol continued to defend herself at Friday’s press conference. She claimed it was “painful not to be believed” and that she had “never had an intention to plagiarize others’ work. She still claims that she and her fellow student who wrote the thesis together “delivered a thesis to the best of our ability” and pointed to data in the thesis that they’s gathered themselves.

She also defended herself on the grounds that “I’m a politician, not an academic,” suggesting she simply wasn’t well-trained in submitting academic work. Kjerkol went on to promote her work, also as health minister over the past few years, calling it “absolutely the most meaningful” of all the jobs she’s ever had, before choking up and fighting back tears. She also seized the opportunity to promote her political agenda and even scolded the press for allegedly harsh treatment of her fellow student.

Ingvild Kjerkol choked up and fought back tears during Friday’s press conference, which was carried live on national TV. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Kjerkol seemed unrepentant and never once apologized for all the trouble she created for Støre and the government. Asked whether she thought she should have been able to continue, though, she responded by acknowledging that a government minister must have the confidence of colleagues and the public. Asked whether that meant “no,” she briefly nodded, before stressing that her thesis had initially been graded with “a strong B” and that she’d been awarded an “A” for her oral defense of it.

Støre, meanwhile, acknowledged that many students, researchers and others in the academic world have been angered by Kjerkol’s cheating and critical to any sign that she would receive special treatment. He also acknowledged that public confidence in his government was at risk once again, and that he would “gladly have been without” another scandal like Kjerkol’s. He avoided a question about whether she’d demanded to stay on, saying simply that “we stand here together” and it remained unclear whether she’d appeal the university commission’s decision.

“We just have to move on now,” said Støre, who faced both mixed but mostly poor public opinion poll results and angry demonstrators outside his party’s national board meeting earlier this week. He also faces hard work ahead of next year’s re-election campaign. Kjerkol, leader of the Labour Party’s chapter in Trøndelag, will stay on until her replacement is named and then return to her seat in Parliament. She will also retain her seat as a member of Labour’s national board.

Opposition politicians responded favourably to Støre’s decision to replace Kjerkol. “It was totally correct that she had to go,” Progress Party leader Sylvi Listhaug told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), calling it “a wise decision” by the prime minister she otherwise criticizes at any opportunity. “It was really the only right thing he could do,” Listhaug said.

There were plenty of scandals among her own party’s ministers when Progress shared government power with the Conservatives, “but this was cheating,” Listhaug said. Both she, Sveinung Rotevatn of the Liberal Party and Olaug Bollestad of the Christian Democrats said Kjerkol’s cheating “had to have consequences.”

Norway’s national students’ organization also praised the decision to relieve Kjerkol of her duties, noting that it was important she, too, faced the consequences of poor academic work. Støre “really couldn’t have come to any other conclusion,” Rotevatn told NRK.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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