Sigbjørn Johnsen says that when he was approached to head a commission intended to coax a consensus on pension reform from Norway’s political parties he saw it as “quite a challenge”, sidestepping phrases like ‘poison chalice’ and ‘herding cats’.
“During the 1990s there had been a number of reports on elements of the pension issue and there was a need to put a cap on everything that had been done and see if it was possible to broaden the road for a compromise,” he says. “Having been finance minister a few years earlier I was familiar with the issues and I had previously headed another commission on the electoral system that had very much the same composition.”
The overall impression of Johnsen’s performance in the commission is very positive.
“He has a way of ‘un-dramatising’ things and creating agreement,” says Alf Hageler, director of the Norwegian Financial Services Association. “He did a great job in this commission, not the least in presenting it, presenting the generational problem that we are facing as a nation. He set a high standard.”
The commission, which sat for three years until reporting in January 2004, brought Johnsen back into the political limelight after the relative obscurity of being the fylkesmann, or the state’s representative, in the county of Hedmark 120km or so to the north-east of Oslo along the Swedish border.
Before that it was as a finance minister in a Labour Party government that he was remembered. And he was remembered, says Bjørj Tørresdal, a member of parliament for the Christian People’s Party of prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. “He is one of those politicians that everybody listens to and he comes across as a nice person,” she said. “Some finance ministers are just forgotten, they are just part of the system and normally they are stony faced. But he is liked by people who are not interested in politics.”
So, praise from somebody across the political left/right divide, but what about someone from his own side? “He’s a good guy and charming,” says Stein Reegård, chief economist Norwegian Trade Union Confederation (LO). “He was finance minister under Gro Harlan Brundtland and was quite successful. He took over at the bottom of a recession in the early 1990s when we had historically high unemployment levels and this may have helped with consensus making, and his time in office was seen as a success story.”
Nevertheless, his term as a minister was not without its problems. “The only blot on his record was his appointment of Torstein Moland as central bank president,” recalled one observer who did not want to be identified. “Moland had to step down in 1995 after a very short term in the face of accusations of tax irregularities.” Johnsen avoided a threatened vote of confidence on that issue having survived one two years earlier at the cost of having to admit misinforming parliament in connection with the government’s treatment of a hostile UNI Storebrand takeover of Skandia.
And Johnsen is not without his detractors. “He had been a parliamentarian since his late 20s, not an economist, and so in the finance ministry was reliant on his civil servants at a time when that was seen as a good thing,” said another observer. “On the commission he was regarded as a good chairman and was a good compromise maker but he was not strong on pensions and again he relied heavily on finance ministry officials worst dominated the work.”
Johnsen rejects the assertion. “That’s without any foundation in my view,” he says. “The commission and I did what we thought was right, but you always get that kind of criticism.”
Hageler agrees. “I think those who say that are probably not satisfied with the commission’s proposals,” he says. “The fact that he was appointed by Labour, he was a former Labour MP and finance minister, he chaired the commission and managed to establish consensus on all the commission proposals makes it hard from those from the Labour Party and on the left in general to say that this is a right wing proposal and that it’s for the capitalists, so they have to belittle him.”
For Johnsen there was a continuity between his time as finance minister and as chairman of the pension commission. “One of the main things with which I was very preoccupied as finance minister was to maintain the generation contract which you also see in the commission’s pension proposals, because the welfare system in Norway rests on the contract between the young and the older generation,” he says. “One of the main issues for the commission was not to jeopardise that contract, and that was the same in my time as finance minister. When we finally got some money into the Petroleum Fund back in May 1996 our objective was to ensure that most of it should be saved to be able to maintain this generational contract at a time of demographic changes.”
After the commission published its report in January 2004 Johnsen embarked on a round of speeches to explain its proposals. “In slightly more than a year I gave about 100 speeches, so I was quite busy,” he says. “But it was very interesting, and in many ways I relived my old election campaigning, meeting a lot of people. However, after parliament gives its opinion on the report on 19 May the job is very much done.”
And then? “I have a very challenging job in Hedmark,” he says. “I am from this part of Norway, and I am country governor in my old constituency. Hedmark is Norway’s main forest county, is the third biggest by area but with only 188,000 people is sparsely populated. It is a leading recreation area, with national parks and mountains and to the outside world we are mostly known for having had the winter Olympics here in 1994. In my view it’s a part of Norway with a lot of future possibilities. But one of my major concerns is the economy of the region. The municipalities are facing a lot of demands on their social services and over the past six months I have been working on a plan for industry and business in Hedmark and its neighbouring county.”
In addition, Johnsen is chairman of aquaculture company Cermaq, which produces fish feed and has interests in salmon farms in Chile, Canada and Scotland and is 80% owned by the ministry of trade & industry. He is also chairman of childcare charity SOS Children’s Villages Norway. “And there’s also a lot of personal things to do, with children, the house and trying to keep relatively fit,” he says.
But Tørresdal still remembers Johnsen for “singing songs, and telling people to relax and to live life,” she says.
So was he ever tempted to give a rendering of Budget Speech — the Musical? “The speaker of parliament would not allow you to do that,” Johnsen says. “But I have quoted poems from the floor in parliament and when I was out campaigning I would sing with people travelling with me and even try some solos from time to time. But I tried not to scare people.”