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Why Norway's former PM is in hot water over impartiality claims

Frazer Norwell
Frazer Norwell - [email protected]
Why Norway's former PM is in hot water over impartiality claims
Erna Solberg is in hot water following an investigation into impartiality claims. File photo: Erna Solberg speaks at the Global Citizen NOW summit in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen/AFP

Current Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg and a former minister in her government face impartiality accusations after an investigation revealed their partners weighed in on state board appointments.

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An investigation by the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) revealed that the husbands of Erna Solberg, former PM and current leader of the Conservative Party and Thorhild Widvey, the former minister of Petroleum and Energy, may have played a role in appointing public board positions.

Before the 2013 election, Solberg's husband, Sindre Finnes, sent an email with the subject "State boards, status June 2013" to Conservative Party leadership. It contained several considerations as to what should be done with state boards when the Conservatives took office.

Solberg said the email reached the party's secretary-general at the time but not her or others responsible for public appointments.

Meanwhile, Thorhild Widvey is said to have drawn a list of 253 candidate names shortly before being appointed Minister of Culture. This list was reportedly shared with her husband, Osvald Bjelland, managing director of the consulting company Xynteo at the time.

Many of the potential candidates who appeared on the list are reportedly friends, acquaintances and business partners of Bjelland.

DN has said that 17 names on this list were given board positions in state-owned enterprises during Solberg's time as Prime Minister, four of which Widvey has appointed directly. Widvey has denied any wrongdoing.

"I have not given positions to friends, but to people I have met, who were thoroughly assessed in the ministry and the Prime Minister's office before they were appointed," she said.

Opposition politicians have said that the candidate lists and input from the partners of Widvey and Solberg could be seen as a ploy to fill state boards with appointments friendly towards the Conservative Party.

"DN's report makes one wonder whether there has been a systematic effort to place Conservative people on boards. It is also special that the husbands of Erna Solberg and her Minister of Culture seem to be central to the work. It is natural that we look at the extent to which Erna Solberg has been involved in this," Nils T. Bjørke, an MP for the Centre Party and member of the controls committee, said.

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Bjørke's concerns have been echoed by Audun Lysbakken, former leader of the Socialist Left Party.

"It is impossible to know whether what Sindre Finnes writes actually influenced the government. But there is an attitude towards state board positions that is emerging here, which worries me," he said.

"Here it looks as if the goal is to get as many Conservative party people as possible into state boards. It is a rather important value that a government primarily looks for the right competence, not the right party book," he added. 

Frode Jacobsen, an MP for the Labour Party and deputy chairman of the parliamentary and controls committee, has told the Norwegian newspaper VG that it may investigate the matters further.

He added the committee would assess whether Solberg should be called into a hearing on inhabil issues in government. This is the Norwegian word used to describe when someone is partial towards someone else and thus cannot act objectively and make merit-based decisions.

"We will, of course, assess whether it is natural to summon Erna Solberg to the hearing that will take place in connection with the case relating to the government apparatus's handling of integrity cases," Jacobsen said. 

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Solberg told the Norwegian press on Thursday that she has already been invited to a committee hearing relating to such matters.

"I feel that Jacobsen from the Labour party is knocking on a wide-open door when he says they are considering whether I should be called up. I was told a long time ago to hold off on the dates for the hearing, which has come about on the basis of the impartiality cases in the Støre government," she told VG.

The former PM was referring to several incidents involving ministers of the current government. This summer, Anette Trettebergstuen, former culture minister and Ola Borten Moe, the former higher education minister, stepped down from their roles after it was found that they had acted impartially.

The current education minister, Tonje Brenna, also faced similar accusations but held onto her job. In the cases of Trettebergstuen and Brenna, both were accused of appointing friends and acquaintances to public positions.

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