Minister of Industries and Innovation Steingrímur J. Sigfússon has had an eventful last four years. During this time, he went from being an opposition party MP to a ruling coalition minister charged with trying to breathe life back into Iceland’s post-crash economy. Now with parliamentary elections only months away, Steingrímur has announced that he will be stepping down as chair of the Left Green party. Curious about his decision, we thought we’d drop him a line and gather some of his thoughts on the state of Icelandic politics while we were at it.
You have just decided to step down as chair of the Left Greens, a post you’ve occupied since the party was founded more than 14 years ago. What are the main reasons for this?
As chair of one of the ruling coalition parties, I have been working for the last four years on the difficult task of bringing Iceland out of the financial recession. I am proud of what we have achieved, but the struggle is far from over. After careful consideration, I decided that it would be a good time to step down, both for me and for the party. Renewal is necessary in politics just as it is elsewhere. I am very happy with my decision and with myself and look forward to continuing the struggle in politics with my colleagues.
What are you proudest of? What could have been done better?
The success that we have achieved in taking the country out of the economic danger zone and renewing its financial independence stands out. We could have worked faster to improve the job market, which has been affected by the economic problems in other European countries. Also, household debt remains a big problem and that’s something that I would have liked to do more to alleviate.
You’ve had a lot of titles since the 2009 elections. According to your CV, you have been Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Minister of Finance, Minister of Economic Affairs and of Fisheries and Agriculture, and finally Minister of Industries and Innovation. Are you sort of a “jack of all trades”? How does one become minister of all these things?
This is all connected to the renovation of the government ministries, and not exactly because I wanted to run many ministries (though I don’t have anything against taking on challenging projects). Most of these different fields have been united into a new and powerful ministry, which improves the task of governing and makes my life easier.
Minister of Industries and Innovation seems like a pretty large umbrella. What does “Innovation” mean in this context; what does it entail for you in your job?
The “innovation” part of the name of the ministry refers to working on projects connected to the development of employment, funds that can be applied for support, and research into the costs for such development. We work closely with the public labour market and support progressive development in this area, which not least of all revolves around innovation.
Can you briefly explain the reasons behind the government renovation?
We decided to re-organise the government, and there were solid rationales for doing so from, among other sources, the Special Investigative Commission report. These sources pointed out that part of the weakness in Icelandic governance before the crash was that we had too many ineffective ministries and far too many small offices which poorly managed the tasks they had to handle in a complicated modern world. So the government took action. We have reduced the number of ministries from 12 to eight, saved money and made our work more effective.
Why do you think we’ve seen a lot of long-standing female members of parliament announce that they are not going to run again, yet almost no long-standing male members of parliament have said the same?
This is great cause for concern and not at all what the Left Greens want to see, as a party of women’s liberation. The past year has been a difficult one in politics, which could have had a part to play in this. In addition, we have to realise that there is still a lot of unfinished business in order to create complete gender equality, among other areas, in politics.
The economy is demonstrably recovering, but support for the Left Greens has been steadily decreasing. Four of the party’s MPs have since left the parliamentary party or left the party itself. Do you think the newly formed parties are breaking apart the left wing, while the conservatives remain a united front?
No, I think the activism and new political campaigns are more centrist, and the choices are increasing there. The Left Greens are and will be, in my mind, the main choice among those who are solidly on the left.
Why are Icelanders seemingly ready to re-elect the party that ruined us financially?
That’s a very good question and will be very worrisome if that becomes the case, but I’ll have to see that happen to believe it. I think people will be reminded of various matters when the election campaign begins, and people will begin to seriously consider the choices before them.
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