Since her most notable Svalbard moment is a horde of emotionally-charged torch-wielding citizens cornering her in a dark parking lot, Monica Mæland is at the very least well-qualified to cope with tumultuous times after being named “ruler” of the archipelago in the wake of the collapse of Norway’s government last week.
Mæland, who as the former Minister of Trade and Industry presided over the decision to shut down nearly all of Store Norske’s mining, is the new Minister of Justice and Immigration under the reorganized minority-led government that remained headed by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg. The justice ministry is responsible for the administrative oversight of Svalbard, including crucial aspects such as drafting its proposed budget.
While the justice ministry has seen considerable turnover at times since Solberg became prime minister in 2013, including some officials with little Svalbard experience, Mæland has been involved in numerous key issues including, most recently, July, efforts last year as the Minister of Local Government and Modernization to address the housing crisis in Longyearbyen. The justice ministry she now presides over is working on an assessment of the current situation.
The turmoil at the national level occurred when the Progress Party, some of whose members are known for strident anti-immigrant/Muslim positions, abandoned the Conservative-led majority coalition after the leadership allowed a woman suspected of having ties with the so-called Islamic State during her stay in Syria to return to Norway to get medical treatment for her child.
The shuffle means Mæland, a Conservative Party member, will be the first justice minister since 2013 who is not a member of the Progress Party.
A collapse in the price of coal, resulting in record losses and near-bankruptcy for Store Norske, resulted in the decision during her tenure as the trade and industry minister to permanently close the mines at Svea and Lunckefjell. The reasoning was the expense of shutting down the mines and dismantling the infrastructure was financially preferable to maintaining the mines in the hope prices would recover enough to make resuming operations profitable.
The decision to dismantle the infrastructure, rather than preserving it so the sites could be used for purposes such as tourism and researcher, proved surprising and controversial for many locals. In addition, the cost of dismantling the cost has soared far above the original estimates, prompting many to question the bottom-line assumptions in the first place.
Mæland, during the torchlight protest in October of 2017 and other meetings with locals, stood by the decision while stating she was committed to helping Longyearbyen through a period of economic/labor transition.
“It’s simply about what we’re thinking about the future. We do not think it will be a profitable investment to start up again in Svea and Lunckefjell. That will result in a lot of lost money.”
“There are still many employees here and especially during the cleanup period the actual number of employees will increase significantly over a temporary period at Svea,” she said, noting Store Norske also supplies Svalbard with energy and is a major property owner, making it “an essential company both for settlements and livelihoods here in Longyearbyen.”