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January 2006
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March 2006

Damn that free enterprise

Norway’s semi-free enterprise is creating problems for finance minister Kristin Halvorsen from the Socialist left Party (SV). Last year she was forced to assure the public that calls from the deputy leader of her party to abolish the Stock Exchange, along with private property, were neither official party politics, nor anything she would work towards in Government.

“As long as we have private enterprise in this country, we need such a marketplace,” she repeatedly told the journalists present at her visit to Oslo Stock Exchange a few weeks ago. It was supposed to be some sort of assurance to the finance industry I guess, but sounded more like a rather feeble attempt to reach a compromise between the bourse and the Marxists in her own party. Gee, we have to accept reality guys…

Blood Money?

Exuberant oil prices have brought a nice return on the Norwegian state’s oil shares for the embattled finance minister, Kristin Halvorsen. The spoils will come in very handy as Norway’s centre-left coalition Government despite other differences seem quite agreed on the virtues of increased public spending. On a different note it will be interesting how this sits with the militantly environmentalist faction of Halvorsen’s Socialist Left Party (SV). The party went to election on an environmental platform, and so far the most vocal opposition to the coalition Government has come from within the ranks of SV.

Who said ideology was dead…

In The Economist’s “The world in 2006” José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, predicted that Europe this year will concentrate more on results and less on ideology. However, on the outskirts of Europe, in ‘annerledeslandet’* Norway - whose refusal to join the EU has left the country outside of EU decision-making, but subject to most EU regulations through it’s membership in EEA - voters at the 2005 general election in September woke up to a re-ideologisation of the political debate after the new Centre-Left Government took office in October.

From the headlines leading up to the election one might have been forgiven for thinking the election was all about kinder gardens and hospital beds, but after the coalition partners emerged from the negotiation table and assumed their new roles, the national media has been awash with old-style socialist notions about the curse of private property and enterprise. However, the ideological debate takes place mostly between the coalition partners or within their parties. It seems the former Government coalition partners, the Conservatives, Liberals and Christian Democrats – perhaps exhausted from their four year long tenure – have little to add.

*annerledeslandet: Norwegian for ‘the different country’, but can perhaps more aptly be translated as the contrarian country, as in:  “who are you to tell us anything”

In Love with Mobile technology

I’ve just landed after a great weekend in London with friends. Despite being on a slow bus back to Oslo I can still work online thanks to the wonderful invention of 3G mobile broadband. I love the fact that this technology enables me to work from just about anywhere, not to mention how it makes being stuck on a bus during rush hours much more bearable...

On trading with totalitarian regimes

Iran’s threats to terminate all business contracts with companies from countries whose media published the infamous Mohammed cartoons might be a blessing in disguise for Statoil, the partly privatised oil company ranked as Norway’s biggest company.

After paying USD 6 million in ‘consultation fees’ to the son of Iran’s ex-president, another USD 3 million in fines for bribery, and investing some USD 327 million before tax in developing Iran’s South Pars gas field, the company was recently forced to write down the entire book value of its share in the project.

With 10 percent of the work left before completion, the project has stalled due to problems created by an Iranian partner. Statoil’s position is not made easier by the fact that their Iranian partners are all owned by the same culprit: the Iranian state, ultimately run by the 12-man Guardian Council, overseen by the Ayatollah Khamane’I, a man ranked as number nine on Parade’s annual list of the world worst dictators.

A possible Iranian trade boycott of Norway similar to that imposed on Denmark today, terminating all bilateral business contracts, will effectively put an end to the scandal-ridden loss-making project that has done so much to damage Statoil’s international reputation.

One can only assume that this also will put an end to the buy-back scheme under which Statoil was to be reimbursed for its expenses. However, what else is to be expected when you are dealing with a totalitarian regime renown for frequently disregarding any legal rights its citizens may lay claim to.

On state ownership

Of course, with a strong Norwegian tradition for state-run everything, it’s three biggest companies being part-privatised former state monopolies, it is perhaps understandable, if not excusable, that no eye-brows were raised in Statoil over the fact that they were dealing with an all-powerful state who happened to own all the contractors they were dealing with.

Talking about state-owned companies, there’s a rumour on the grapevine that well-placed policymakers in the Norwegian state and counties are eager to sell off the right to run other state-owned ventures such as public transport and the rail network, though of course retaining the right to control it. It would be so nice to have someone else to foot the bill and shift the blame on when neglected infrastructure goes haywire. Trains anyone? Trams? A nice under-invested rail network? 

The world on fire over cartoon row

As Danish and Norwegian flags were set ablaze, and militant Muslim demonstrators were shouting “death to all Westerners” in several capitals of the world last week, the Norwegian foreign department initially reacted by sending out a memo to its Middle East embassies widely perceived as kowtowing to the militants. The discrete statement on how to appease Muslim reactions in the wake of a Christian magazine publishing a cartoon of Mohammed as a suicide bomber, was leaked to the press and led to other politicians protesting how it played down Norwegian constitutional rights such as freedom of speech. However, the Norwegian Government took a stronger line after the Norwegian embassy in Damascus was set on fire Saturday, and has vowed to file a complaint with the UN and seek compensation from the Syrian government.   

Amidst a flurry of editorials and commentators scrambling to make excuses for our constitutionally embedded freedom of speech and press, I was relieved to see a few brave and poignant voices standing up for our democratic rights. I particularly appreciated Norwegian-Pakistani stand-up-comedienne Shabana Rehman’s article in Dagbladet today, calling for people not to give in to the tyranny of emotions, and Vampus' brave blogging campaign. Thank you Shabana and Heidi. I also appreciated The Daily Telegraph's leader Democracy has a gun held to its head.