Opinion: As the “Commuter Housing Scandal” drags on, is trust of people in power eroding in Norway?

Parliament StortingThe Norwegian Storting. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB
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The Oslo Police District announced this week that multiple new suspects are being investigated in relation to further breaches of “Commuter Housing” regulations. As this depressingly common saga now stretches into the third year, a new government and parliament, will the high levels of trust and faith of authorities and people in positions of power – that is so uncommon worldwide yet such a great societal trait to have – erode?

Death, taxes, and more politicians caught up in this scandal

Benjamin Franklin once quipped that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Had he been around today, he no doubt would have added another politician resigning as a result of the seemingly never-ending “commuter housing scandal” (pendlerbolig saken).

They say that a week is a long time in politics. The modern 24 hours news cycle moves so fast that political achievements or scandals are often as quickly forgotten as it takes to type a tweet. Yet the current Norwegian political class seems to be stuck in “Groundhog Day” mode as time and time again, members of the parliament have been caught claiming (taxpayers’) money by various creative interpretations of the rules and regulations regarding the “commuter housing scheme.”

The Norwegian parliament (Storting) has 143 furnished apartments that are available for members of parliament that live more than 40 kilometers away from Oslo. We all know that the distance from Tromsø to Oslo is about the same distance as Oslo is from Paris. Politicians need to shuttle between remote parts of the country and the capital and it is common sense that provisions are made for them. Yet there is a lack of common sense when it comes to politicians applying the very laws that they themselves wrote.

Multiple new suspects confirmed by police but how far will the investigation get?

The ink was not even dry from Hadija Tajik’s resignation when the Oslo Police District now confirmed that there is a new investigation into multiple (6) suspects. In the latest chapter of this scandal, Kristin Ingeborg Rusdal, Police attorney for Oslo Police District, would only confirm to Norway Today that “several persons have been summoned for questioning on suspicion on the basis of what has emerged so far in the investigation. It cannot be ruled out that we will summon more people for questioning further on in the investigation.”

Yet Rusdal also explained how these new suspects, under the law, had no obligation to divulge information or explain themselves.  She said that “it is natural to interrogate them with the status of suspects, as this also gives them further legal rights. Anyone with the status of a suspect can bring a lawyer for questioning. Unlike an interrogation of witnesses, the suspect does not have a duty to explain themselves.”

So with all these new suspects, no doubt being “lawyered up” and not having a need to explain themselves, or their actions, one wonders how far the police investigation will actually get? Or is dragging these suspects for questioning just “going through the motions” for good optics and no expected result? We shall wait and see but the integrity of Norway’s political class is already at historic lows.

Hadia Tajik
Hadia Tajik: The most recent politician to resign as a result of this scandal but probably not the last? Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB

Who has been caught up so far?

Before we discuss the impact of these scandals, let us just remember exactly who has been caught up in a web of lies, fraud, and scandal. In the space of just over 6 months, Norway has seen the following politicians caught up in this scandal: two government ministers in Hadija Tajik (AP) and Kjell Ingolf Ropstad (KRF) and a president of the parliament barely one month into her job, Eva Kristin Hansen (AP). Also implicated in this scandal are fellow politicians Torgeir Knag Fylkenes (SV), Olaf Michael Thomassen (H), Himanshu Gulati (FRP), Tellef Inge Mørland (AP), and Kristian Tonning Riise (H) who all have, according to the newspaper Aftenposten, received commuter housing though they had residences in Oslo.

This scandal has tainted the latter years of the Solberg government and already besmirched the squeaky clean government of Jonas Gahr Støre, who was only elected last September. The number and range of politicians caught up in this scandal seem to cross political boundaries – this is not a “Left” or a “Right” scandal, it has affected most parties across the political spectrum. What is even more disturbing is that senior politicians – a government minister, a party leader, and a president of the parliament – have also been indicted. Where were the background checks by their various parties before they assumed their positions of power?

A more important point, however, was just how deluded must they have been assuming power knowing that they had “creatively interpreted the rules” at the expense of the very people they were elected to serve and protect? An apartment is, after all, quite a hard thing to quietly sweep under the carpet before any nosy journalists start poking around?

An erosion of trust has begun here in Norway

There is no doubt that this scandal has severely dented the public’s trust and faith in the political class. The latest survey, from Norstat, conducted in December 2020 (this was, of course, before the Eva Hansen and Hadia Tajik resignations) showed that trust in the Storting had fallen over 10%, from 78% that June to only 69% six months later. Given the two resignations at the start of this year plus the new police investigation, how much more would trust levels fall now?

As an outsider to this country, one of the things that Norway can be proud of is the very low levels of corruption amongst its political class. Unfortunately, though, recent times have seen these low levels slowly and steadily rise. First, we had the bombshell of the NAV scandal which seemed to reach back almost three decades. Then the next scandal involved “commuter housing,” which, as mentioned, seemed to affect all members and all levels of the Storting.

Finally, there was the snubbing of what would have been Norway’s first female bank governor for Jens Stoltenberg – a deal that was reportedly made over dinners and in back rooms. It was less than a week ago that the Control Committee announced its investigation into Stoltenberg’s appointment to Norges Bank top job would be put on hold due to the security situation in Russia. This would allow Stoltenberg to focus full time on his role as Secretary-General of NATO without any distractions from home. His appointment should come under closer scrutiny once (hopefully) there is a more peaceful situation in Ukraine.

The next Norstat survey that measures Norwegians’ trust in members of the Storting will make for interesting (though one thinks thoroughly depressing) reading.

Norwegian parliament - Storting
The Norwegian parliament. Photo: Ole Berg-Rusten / NTB

A generation of Norwegians have grown up with their politicians embroiled in scandal

There is now, in this country, a generation of Norwegians who have grown up seeing politicians their parents (and now they) have elected be caught up in scandals, wrongfully misinterpreting rules and regulations that they themselves wrote, reeking of ineptitude, arrogance, and the bitter stench of corruption.

Without any doubt, the era of trust, of faith, of no balances and checks should be over. We should not let Norway’s politicians simply acquire benefits (paid for by us, the taxpayer) on a handshake, on their word of honor, or any other outdated method. Serious checks and balances need to be put in place so scandals like the pendlerbolig saken never can be allowed to happen again. A politician’s first job, after all, is survival whether they admit it or not. We expect these people whose job it is to do anything and everything to ensure their survival, their place in a position of power to also be paragons of virtue and honor?

The final word, however, goes to Peggy Scimic Brønn, the reputation researcher, who was behind the Norstat Survey last December. “Trust” she said “is incredibly difficult to restore once it is broken.” As the latest chapter of this scandal takes place, let us hope that Norway’s high levels of trust in politicians have not been broken forever.

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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