- Minister of Transportation and Communications Ketil Solvik-Olsen may have misinformed Parliament (Stortinget) in the case about the status of Svalbard airport. Does not inspire confidence.
These are the words of attorney Kristine Foss of the Norwegian Press Association, following High North News’ requesting her to assess the lack of transparency from the Norwegian government following the degrading of Svalbard airport from ‘international’ to ‘domestic’ airport.
Foss points out that there is a discrepancy between the explanations Solvik-Olsen has provided in Parliament on the one hand, and his ministry’s grounds for rejecting High North News access to the documents in this case.
Threat to national security?
- The grounds provided from the ministers and state secretaries in charge when the change (to the airport’s status, journ.note.) took place, was that the change was largely due to economic reasons. When High North News then requests access to the figures behind the economic considerations, these are classified as secret, first as internal documents. Later, the classification is upheld on the argument that insight would represent a threat to national security, Foss emphasizes.
Misinformed the people and Stortinget
When denying HNN access to the case documents, the Department has argued among others that these are internal working documents, and also that information in these documents is subject to classification as secret according to the Security Act.
- This indicates that economic considerations have not been crucial for the decision, in which case both the people and the Parliament have been misinformed. That is quite delicate.
Does not inspire confidence
The secrecy surrounding this case does not inspire confidence and leaves a trail of questions about the real reason for this change, the Press Association’s Attorney Kristine Foss says in closing.
Situation in a whole new light
MP Eirik Sivertsen (Labour) asked Transportation and Communications Minister Solvik-Olsen about the downgrading during a parliamentary question hour last October.
Sivertsen now says he is surprised.
- This places the matter in a completely new light. Minister Solvik-Olsen has repeatedly informed the Storting that the re-classification of Svalbard airport from international to domestic airport had to do with the facilities and services that are offered at the airport.
All information not disclosed
Solvik-Olsen said the airport does not meet the conditions that have to be met in order to be classified as an international airport and that, given the present traffic and services at the airport, it was natural to consider a re-classification to domestic airport to be the most relevant solution.
He also said that he believes he has provided comprehensive information to the parliament.
If the information now emerging proves to be correct, it appears that not all information has been provided after all, Sivertsen says to High North News.
Will ask the minister
- What will you do about it?
- I will raise the issue with the relevant ministers, so that we can find the correct reason for the re-classification of the status of Svalbard airport.
Which form this will take is also dependent on what the government considers appropriate.
Ministers depend on trust
- Should it be proved that ministers have misinformed the Parliament (and the people) – will that not have parliamentary consequences?
- A minister depends on trust. If it is true that the minister has not provided the correct information or has provided misleading information, then that will undermine the parliament’s trust in that minister.
- Is not a minister obliged to provide correct information to the parliament?
- Why yes, the Constitution requires all ministers to provide correct information and to not provide misleading information.
The government must clear up
- How can the government clear up this situation in which the press association’s attorney argues there is a discrepancy between the information and arguments provided?
- The government has to answer that. It is my view that any government is not only dependent on receiving a mandate through elections; it is also dependent on legitimacy and trust. It is the government’s responsibility to manage these in a satisfactory way, says Eirik Sivertsen.
A strange case
Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes, representing the Socialist Left party of Troms County, is a member of the parliament’s Standing Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs. After reviewing High North News’ articles about Svalbard airport, he now wants to raise the matter in parliament through a written question to the Minister of Transportation and Communications.
- As it appears now, this is a rather peculiar case, Fylkesnes says. – Secrecy may be required for various reasons, however, secrecy about the reasons behind secrecy is quite peculiar, to put it mildly.
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Ever since it was announced, through an anonymous press release at the Norwegian Aviation Authority’s web pages, that Svalbard airport was downgraded from international to domestic, the government’s representatives have said this is due to economic reasons.
Local Svalbard businesses were caught off-hand, as were the local airport owners of Avinor Longyearbyen.
HNN requested access to the calculations from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, a question that this ministry passed on to the Ministry of Justice as it argued it was their budget.
The Ministry of Justice returned the issue to the Ministry of Transportation, referring to the decision in question being made by the latter.
The government’s Polar Committee has (in all likelihood) discussed the matter at least twice. No access is provided to the minutes of meetings of this committee.
The Polar Committee is comprised of representatives from eight different Ministries as well as the Prime Minister’s office. Only the agenda for each meeting is available for the public, minutes of the meetings are not.
In the parliamentary question hour on 25 October, 2017 Minister Solvik-Olsen explains the downgrading with “major investments”.
In a parliamentary debate on 30 November, 2017 then-Minister of Trade Monica Mæland said that she “never [has] received any input from local actors to indicate reactions to this decision”.
HNN appealed the access application rejection from the Ministry to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman had to replace its case worker due to lacking security clearance, and subsequently concluded as follows:
“Following a review of the documents to which access is requested, and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications’ argument for rejecting such access, no grounds have been found that could support the idea that further investigations from this office would lead to legally decisive arguments against the Ministry’s decision to deny access to the relevant information.
The case is thus closed here.”