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Torbjørn Røe Isaksen takes on tricky government post

Torbjørn Røe Isaksen takes on tricky government post

| Text: Björn Lindahl, foto: Øyvinn Myge/NFD

Torbjørn Røe Isaksen became Norway’s new Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion on 24 January. It is the least sought-after government post right now, after the biggest legal scandal in the country’s history. But Isaksen has ambitions.

He has already signalled he would not mind running for the Conservative Party leadership when Erna Solberg one day steps down. That might be a question for debate during this spring’s party congress. Solberg has been party leader since 2004.

“Erna stays for as long as she wants. Even if we lose our majority after the 2021 election, she can carry on as leader. But I am considering the possibility of taking over,” Torbjørn Røe Isaksen recently told the newspaper Telemarkavisa. 

He also added that he was considering leaving politics altogether.

The “NAV scandal"

Whether he gets the chance to be elected party leader depends on how he handles what has become known in Norway as the NAV scandal. But the scandal is also about mistakes that were committed by different governments and the judiciary.

In October 2019 it became clear that Norway’s welfare authority NAV, which is responsible for both job centres, social care and welfare rights, had been misinterpreting the EEA agreement. Norway had made it a prerequisite that in order to receive certain kinds of unemployment benefits, a person must be present in the country.

According to the EEA agreement, which secures the same free movement of capital, goods and people as within the rest of the EU, Norway cannot impose such a rule. Everyone should be able to travel freely within the EEA. 

So far it has emerged 75 people have been found unjustly guilty of fraud. 45 of them were given prison sentences. 2 400 have unfairly been forced to pay back up to several hundred thousand kroner. 

Prime Minister Erna Solberg promised to put all the facts on the table but has refused to provide parliament with email exchanges between the government ministry and NAV from the time just before the legal scandal was uncovered.

After the Progress Party left the government on 24 January this year, a government re-shuffle saw the departure of the previous Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Anniken Hauglie. 

A former trade minister 

Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has so far not been involved in this case. He became an MP in 2009, and a government minister in 2013 – first as Minister of Education, and then Minister of Trade from 2018. 

He grew in Porsgrunn in Telemark with parents who were both teachers, and studied political science at the University of Oslo. His main thesis was on the Austrian national economist Friedrich von Hayek, who is considered to be John Maynard Keynes’ opposite. Hayek was a classical liberalist who opposed state intervention in the market economy. 

The top ideologue

Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has been described as the Conservative Party’s top ideologue. The VG newspaper named him the country’s top young political talent in 2007. At the time, he was the head of the Conservatives’ youth wing, and wrote a book in which he claimed the party had allowed its politics to be too focused on money rather than ideology. 

Røe Isaksen is still struggling with the fact that he is still, 12 years later, more known for that than what he has achieved as a government minister. 

The NAV scandal will surely change how he will be seen in the future. 

“I’m not here to have fun at work,” he said when he received the keys to his new ministerial office.


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