Not so squeaky clean: Is Norway really so corruption-free?

Parliament StortingThe Norwegian Storting. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB

Recent Norwegian political life, historically squeaky clean, has been plagued by a number of scandals. Both the Solberg and Støre government have seen key members resign, possibly costing the former the election and the latter its unblemished record, just weeks into governing. From sushi to the suburbs, Norway’s political class is showing signs of an arrogant attitude to rules, regulations, and laws. These scandals were often discovered not by the state authorities or mechanisms, put in place to regulate and investigate, but by journalists. Though most of the scandals resulted in swift action, their increasing number is a disturbing trend amongst those that should govern for the greater good. Does Norway really possess the (almost) corruption-free governing class that it is famed for all over the world?

New Storting, old problems

This was not the start that the new center-left coalition, under Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, wanted. Just weeks into governing, a housing scandal claimed the first (and one would suspect probably not the last) casualty of the new government. The newly elected President of the Storting, Eva Kristin Hansen (AP), was forced to resign after it emerged that she had withheld vital information about her address and was accused of defrauding taxpayer money. 5 other members of the Storting are under investigation for the same offense.

This “housing scandal” has been dragging on now for months engulfing both the current and former governments. The Christian Democrats (KRF), a key member of the Solberg center-right coalition government, saw its vote decline in the recent Storting elections because its former leader, Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, had been engulfed in similar claims of defrauding the taxpayer over false information about housing.

In the space of a few months, key figures in both the current and former governments, of differing sides, political philosophies, and positions, have been forced to resign due to defrauding the taxpayer. Taking public money that you are not entitled to, in whatever way, shape, or form, has another ugly name: corruption.

Norway’s public sector – is it so squeaky clean?

Every year Transparency International, a non-profit organization that records and tracks corruption globally, publishes its Corruption Perceptions Index. This is a list of countries ranked according to the perceived level of corruption within each country’s public sector. The usual suspects are always topping the list: a smattering of Nordic and other small but wealthy nations (think the 3 S’s: Scandinavia, Singapore, and Switzerland)

For 2020, the latest list published, New Zealand was ranked as having the least corrupt public sector in the world. Norway, whose society has historically always been seen, from without and within, as having an anthamena to corruption, ranked equal 7th with a score of 84/100.

Yet with the “commuter housing scandal” plaguing a significant amount of Storting members one wonders where Norway will rank for 2021. The guilty parties, however, have resigned, Ropstad as KRF leader and Hansen as Storting President. The others under investigation, if found guilty, will surely resign too. This is a positive sign. In other countries, politicians would have been defiant and stubbornly clung to power. Not so (just yet) in Norway albeit Hansen threatened to stay put and Ropstad said he had done nothing other than simply following the correct rules.

Eva Kristin Hansen
Happier times: Eva Kristian Hansen as the newly elected President of the Storting in October. Photo: Fredrik Hagen / NTB

Checks and balances to keep politicians honest clearly not working

What is most pressing about the spate of recent scandals in Norway’s public sector of late has how they have been discovered. We need to go back to 2018 when the Storting was rocked by a “travel expenses scandal.” Two key public figures were found, by Aftenposten, to have defrauded the public of hundreds of thousands of kroner by submitting undocumented travel bills. It was not, however, the Storting who discovered this fraud but the work of the newspaper, Aftenposten. Fast forward to this year and it was another newspaper, Adressa, which broke the news of the latest chapter in the “commuter housing scandal.”

Yet this is not how it should be. It is, to be sure, the “Fourth Estate’s” job to hold politicians to account and to publish newsworthy material but there are in-built mechanisms of Norway’s political system which should have been the first to pick up any discrepancies by politicians. Upon his resignation, Ropstad wrote that he had been in a “dialogue” with the Storing Housing office since 2009. Why did it take 12 years and an outside source to find out that potential fraud had been committed?

As the investigation into the scandal continues it has now emerged that tax was unpaid and that several key documents have now, quite conveniently for many in the Storting, gone missing. Surely the mechanisms and authorities that Storting had in place to hold its member to account are simply not working. The newly elected President of the Storting, Masud Gharahkhani (AP), admitted to TV2 that “…we did not have control and systems in place. I have informed the director of the Storting that this is not the way things can be, now it must be cleaned up on all levels…

These developments are what one would expect in a deeply corrupt regime not the 7th least corrupt public sector in the world.

Masud Gharahkhani -Marianne Andreassen
These hands are made for cleaning: New President of the Storting, Masud Gharahkhani (AP) has said he wants to clean up Norwegian political life Photo: Terje Pedersen / NTB

Stop the rot quickly

In a society that has been blessed, for generations, with low levels of corruption, how much longer can this last? Cracks, it appears, are starting to show. Huge amounts of money have been flowing into the public sector over the past generation. Senior civil servants, for example, have been a 64% wage increase, from 1997 to 2020, which has left 300 earning more than the Prime Minister! Add this to the series of scandals that have been plaguing the Storting for the past few years and the public sector’s squeaky clean image appears to be fading.

We should not be so quick to dismiss the pay rises, the scandals, the fraud as just the work of a “few bad apples.” The political class has been, for a while, completely disregarding laws, regulations, and rules that it has set itself. From COVID to commuting, there has been lately, it seems, a corruption of Norwegian political life. The checks and balances put in place to regulate Storting members have failed. Was it not for the work of journalists, who knows whether the public would have found out about a series of scandals, ranging from NAV to COVID to commuting? Mr. Gharakhani, in his role as the new President of the Storting, has a big challenge to clean the house, to stop the rot quickly before it turns systematic.

Just a reminder – follow the rules and abide by the law

In what is surely the most damning indication of the state of Norway’s public sector, various political parties have had to remind their members to abide by the rules regarding commuter housing. A broad range of parties, from the far left (SV) to the far right (FRP) have repeatedly told their members to check they are within the law and the rules.

Having to remind politicians to not break the laws that they themselves have helped set is beyond belief. Norwegian political life surely has reached a new low. Transparency International’s index for 2021 will make for interesting reading as these series of scandals will surely affect Norway’s rank.

Let us hope that this is the nadir and that the only way is up.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

About the author:

Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayNews

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1 Comment on "Not so squeaky clean: Is Norway really so corruption-free?"

  1. Excellent article !!

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