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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Mixed reaction to latest ministerial embarrassment

Oddmund Hoel has narrowly avoided becoming the third government minister in charge of research and higher education to resign in disgrace during the past year. He readily admitted, though, that kissing and hugging the woman who serves as a top administrator in his own ministry wasn’t a good idea, and both of his bosses excused him with a rebuke.

Oddmund Hoel became the third Center Party minister in charge of research and higher education to get into trouble. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

Hoel, who represents the rural-oriented Center Party, was called “the world’s most boring man” when he took over his ministerial post in January after party colleague Sandra Borch, who quickly resigned after admitting to cheating on her master’s thesis. She had  taken over just a few months earlier for yet another Center Party veteran, Ola Borten Moe, who got caught in a conflict of interest after buying stock in a government contractor.

Everyone, including Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, seemed to think Hoel would be a safe choice and wouldn’t create more government embarrassment over illegalities or inappropriate conduct. But in early May, after delivering the opening speech at a research conference in downtown Oslo, Hoel was observed cuddling with his own ekspedisjonssjef (the highest administrative leader of divisions within a Norwegian ministry) in the backyard of two whisky bars not far away.

Newspaper Aftenposten spent weeks verifying the incident, raising questions and finally publishing a story last week. It was immediately picked up by other media outlets. Prime Minister Støre and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (who serves as finance minister) found themselves faced once again with a high-level government scandal.

“What if it had been a foreign power who called government minister Oddmund Hoel and pressured him over kissing a subordinate, and not a newspaper?” mused newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) in an editorial the next day. “The road from idiotic, inebriated behaviour to questions of national security can in theory be so short.”

Neither Hoel nor his subordinate (whom Aftenposten opted against naming in its report) had mentioned the romantic incident to colleagues until Aftenposten called with questions. That prompted Hoel, who confirmed what’s called klining in Norwegian, and the female administrator to inform the ministry’s top administrator (called  departementsråd) and, ultimately, both the prime minister and the Center Party’s boss.

Oddmund Hoel, not smiling now. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

“It was spontaneous, thoughtless and embarrassing, and not something I wanted to talk about,” he stated in a written response to Aftenposten. “I see now that was a mistake.” Hoel also wrote to Aftenposten that he and his top female colleague simply “had a good chat that ended with us kissing. That shouldn’t have happened.” He described the kissing as “an unprofessional incident in an otherwise professional relationship.”

His administrative colleague also confirmed the interlude to Aftenposten, noting that “after the others (ministerial colleagues) had gone home, we kissed. After that I took a taxi home alone.” In her own written response, she added that in retrospect, “it’s easy to see that the incident was unprofessional and inappropriate and an example of bad judgment. Such things should not happen between a minister and a division chief. It hadn’t happened before and it won’t happen again.”

Since several others outside the bar had observed the incident, and since it involved two high-ranking state officials, Aftenposten wasn’t inclined to ignore it. After so many other recent scandals among government ministers and other high-ranking public officials, accusations that they tend to get off easy, and concerns over waning public confidence in political leaders, the newspaper could have been accused of protecting or even favouring Hoel if the incident went unreported. A similar situation had occurred between another earlier government minister, Sigbjørn Gjelsvik (also from the Center Party). He didn’t resign and wasn’t fired, but when Prime Minister Støre had to reshuffle his cabinet last fall, Gjelsvik lost his post as minister in charge of local governments.

Dag Thomas Gisholt, the administrative boss of the education ministry as a whole (it includes a separate minister in charge of education at primary and secondary schools), told Aftenposten that both Hoel and his subordinate had informed him of the incident on May 28. “I have spoken at length with both of them. We agree the incident was unprofessional and unwise. I am certain this was a single indicent and we are putting it behind us.”

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, shown here with his new minister in January, claims he still has confidence in Hoel. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Ingrid Brandal Myklebust

Støre told Aftenposten that he’d been informed of the incident on May 29. “Such things should not happen,” the prime minister wrote in a statement to the newspaper. “Oddmund Hoel has been clear about that … he has acknowledged that it wasn’t right. I have also told him that.”

Center Party leader Vedum told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he’d also spoken with Hoel and told him that the incident was inappropriate. “I have spoken with Oddmund and we both agree on that,” Vedum told NRK.

Both Støre and Vedum said they still had confidence in Hoel as minister in charge of research and higher education. Aftenposten, meanwhile, got some criticism for reporting the story at all. Gunnar Halvorsen, a reader from Korsvoll in Oslo, wrote in a letter to the editor that the paper had “hit a low” with its story, claiming that when “two grown-up people are alone at a whisky bar in Oslo and kiss each other, it should not be a story for a serious newspaper like Aftenposten.” Halvorsen equated it to spreading “evil gossip from anonymous sources,” and a “blow below the belt.” He also rejected concerns that Hoel made himself vulnerable to extortion.

Aftenposten and other media commentators disagreed. “Government ministers must fully rely on confidence at all levels,” Aftenposten wrote in a column explaining its decision to publish the story. “This incident raises questions of the minister’s impartiality and judgment, and whether he makes himself vulnerable to blackmail.”

The newspaper noted that the incident also violated the government’s own handbook for political leadership, which states the need, in addition to following formal rules and regulations, “for common sense and dignity both on and off the job, in order to maintain confidence in themselves, the ministry and the government.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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