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Guðbjartur Hannesson - Iceland's Minister for Welfare

Guðbjartur Hannesson - Iceland's Minister for Welfare

| Text: Þór Jónsson

Guðbjartur Hannesson is Iceland's new minister in charge of merging all welfare issues into one ministry. He must do this while the country's budget is cut to the bone in the wake of the 2008 crash which left the country's economy in ruins. The Ministry of Welfare must be up and running by the end of the year.

"It's not an impossible task," Mr Hannesson tells Nordic Labour Journal.

"We have a clear vision and policy. And with the backing of a talented and competent team of 80 to 90 people I don't fear a thing."

For now Mr Hannesson has to do as best he can working for two ministries: the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health. He also represents the government party The Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) in parliament.

"Right now parliamentary work is a bit messy because of the suggested reintroduction of the Landsdomur," [a special court designed to hold ministers accountable for crimes, misdemeanours, treason and general carelessness] he says.

"It means long days, but I'm used to that. I still try to prioritise the department merger."

The Ministry of Social Affairs also carries responsibility for social security and labour. Mr Hannesson says that latter part will not be changed. The merger will be most felt within care for the elderly and the physically handicapped.

"Today these areas fall under both departments."

Fast-rising politician

It didn't take long for Guðbjartur Hannesson to gain a prominent place on the Icelandic political scene. His parliamentary colleagues have long known him as both trustworthy and hard-working. They chose him as leader of the parliament's budget committee at a time when he had been under a lot of pressure over the so-called Icesave-crisis (when Iceland refused to pay compensation to the Netherlands and the UK for money lost through the Icesave scheme). 

Asked about the enormous responsibility of being in charge of half of the entire national budget as the minister of healthcare and social affairs, Mr Hannesson says it's nothing compared to heading the budget committee.

"It is responsible for the entire budget."

There will be cuts

He says Icelanders must prepare for cuts of around 5 percent next year, even though attempts are being made to ring-fence the welfare budget. Culture will be harder hit. The state will need to reduce its input while the culture sector increases its efficiency. 

Money should be spent on people, not structure, middlemen or speculation:

"What's important is to stop the runaway unemployment numbers. It doesn't become Icelanders to be without work. We need to find good and reasonable ways for all to help use our resources: the fish in the sea, the energy underground, the tourist industry and our creativity and innovation."

Heavy interest costs

One in every five Krona goes on interest payments, says Hannesson, who wants to change the interest rate for welfare. The debt needs to be reduced urgently.  

"The other Nordic countries have helped us with new loans. That has meant a great deal to us. Nordic cooperation, not least on welfare, is of utmost importance. We can help each other by exchanging knowledge and experience and support each other internationally. We need all the support we can get now that we're applying for EU membership."

Guðbjartur Hannesson, Minister of Welfare in the making, says he is optimistic about the future. The Icelandic economy seems to be heading in the right direction. Economic growth is six months ahead of schedule, unemployment has finally started to drop and in 18 months inflation has dropped 4.5 percent from 18.6 percent.

The need to look ahead

"We need to be able to forgive," he says, alluding to an investigation into whether the crisis was a result of criminal actions or negligence from the financial sector, traders and politicians. 

"We need to find a solution and rectify what happened and we need to look ahead."

From head teacher to politician

Guðbjartur Hannesson was born in 1950 in Akranes, a fishing town in South-west Iceland, some 50km from the capital Reykjavik.

He has just been appointed Minister of Social Affairs and Health in the coalition government comprising the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement. From next year he will be Minister of Welfare when the two departments merge.

Guðbjartur Hannesson was elected to Iceland's parliament (the Allting) for the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) in 2007. He trained as a teacher in Iceland, Denmark and England. He was head teacher at a primary school in his home town of Akranes, where he also served as municipal councillor between 1986 and 1998.

He was on the board of Landsbankinn (the national bank) between 1998 and 2003 and of Heritable Bank in London from 2002 to 2003. Hannesson is married to work therapist Sigrún Ásmundsdóttir. They have two daughters.


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