“I want to make it a law that ministers can’t be members of parliament,” Siv Friðleifsdóttir tells me on the phone, and the first thought that springs to mind is: sour grapes. She had been Minister of the Environment from 1999 until just last year, when she was unexpectedly asked to vacate her position. But then: “I actually tried to introduce this bill some years ago, but it died in committee. It wasn’t even close,” she says, laughing. So much for the sour grapes theory. But that’s par for course when it comes to Ms. Friðleifsdóttir: you never know what to expect.
Siv Friðleifsdóttir has been influential in the Progressive Party since 1991, when she supported entry into the European Economic Area (EEA). As Minister of the Environment she was the voice behind what many see as the worst environmental decision in the history of the country, the Kárahnjukar dam project. But since losing her poaition, she was one of the first in her party to say that the possibility of joining a US-led coalition to invade Iraq was never brought up in the Foreign Affairs Committee. She also introduced the smoking ban bill and has been a strong advocate of free pre-school. Most of all, she has been in many ways on the forefront of gender equality, once famously comparing the Icelandic parliament to the new Iraqi parliament: Iraq has more equal representation.
When I met her at Alþingi, she promptly offered me lunch. I declined out of politeness and went into interview mode.
“The Progressives have had some divisive moments within their party recently,” I said, “such as debate over the Iraq issue earlier this year. What were some of your impressions of this struggle?”
She quickly changed the subject to the EU, claiming, “A lot of young people have been in favour of joining the EU, but the government has been against joining it.” Friðleifsdóttir has been in favour of joining the EU, while the Progressive’s partner in the coalition government, the Independence party, are pronounced Euroskeptics.
I had been nursing a pet theory that the Progressives could conceivably form a new coalition with the opposition (the Social Democrats and the Leftist-Greens), so I asked, “The Independence and the Progressive Parties have differed on a number of matters. Is a rift forming between the two?”
On this point she was clear: the Progressive and the Independence Parties aren’t splitting any time soon, but she added, “Of course, we [the Progressives] could lose power if the ruling party makes some mistakes, but I think that people deep down trust this coalition.”
“Based on what?,” I asked.
“Based on the government’s good outcome in the Gallup. The Gallup goes up and down, but it remains relatively stable.” [It should be noted that the most recent Gallup poll put the ruling coalition at a majority of barely 51%.]
We moved on to the Progressive Party’s good deed: Minister of Industry (and Progressive) Valgerður Sverrisdóttir recently said that Iceland cannot be dependent on aluminium and heavy industry, a position that seemed to contradict government policies as it runs polls in the north about opening an aluminium plant in Eyjafjörður.
“Valgerður’s statement has been widely misinterpreted,” Friðleifsdóttir told me. “She wasn’t saying we should abandon heavy industry altogether; just that we shouldn’t put all our eggs into one basket. Specifically, we’ve been focussing on the tourist sector by trying to expand the Vatnajökull National Park. You see, currently the boundaries are here . . . “ whereupon she proceeded to draw a detailed map of where the Vatnajökull National Park is, and where they would like it to be, explaining that there are still some unsettled issues over land ownership in some areas. “There are certain parts of the country where no one knows who owns the land.”
Diagramming is something Ms. Friðleifsdóttir likes to do. Get her started on any topic – from free pre-schools to Kárahnjúkar – and she’ll launch into the subject with everything she has, sketching the issue on paper, citing dates and sources. The sort of thing a political junkie like me just eats up, in another words.
The diagrams almost had me mesmerized, but I had to drop the rough question. As much as Friðleifsdóttir has reinvented herself, she is famous to young voters for her role in pushing the Kárahnjúkar dam when she was Minister of Environment.
When asked if she would have done anything differently in retrospect, she said, “I’m pleased with how the project was run and wouldn’t have done anything differently. It was a big debate, and it was very clear that we had good support for this among the people, as seen in the Gallup poll about it.”
[The Gallup poll results actually showed 53% supporting the project, with 30% opposed and 17% undecided.]
But Friðleifsdóttir truly shines on women’s issues. When I mentioned the Progressive campaign to close the wage gap between men and women, and asked if women’s issues are a recent platform of the Progressive Party, her response was adamant: “It’s always been a very important issue with us. The Progressives were the first to put forth a measure addressing gender issues within the party and have led a campaign to bring the percentage of women in parliament up to 40%, when possible. There’s gender bias in many fields of Icelandic society. Local government is comprised of only 30% women. In the government, only 25% are women and within parliament, 30%.”
Trying to play devil’s advocate (i.e., doing my job), I asked if this might not be because women are less interested in getting involved in politics than men.
“This is absurd,” she retorted. “Women in this country have been battling to get higher up for a long time now. There are many reasons why their way has been blocked. We have been living in a patriarchal society for decades. Who remembers anything else? And of course no one wants to lose their seat – the men who have them want to hang onto them, naturally. It’s been a sensitive, difficult battle. The field of business has been even more difficult – among the top 100 companies in Iceland, only two have women as directors, and that’s very recent. Everyone likes to talk about gender equality, but I wonder how many men actually believe it in their hearts. It’s easy to talk about, but their actions speak louder than words.”
Having taken up nearly her entire lunch hour, I concluded the interview. The last time I met her, in the spring of 2004, she had asked to take my picture at the interview’s end, which she later posted on her website. This time, she asked for Grapevine’s website address, which she linked on her site that day.
“Am I going to see a copy of this interview?” she asked. It is standard policy in Iceland to allow subjects to read over interviews.
“If you want to,” I said.
She thought about it for a moment, then decided, “No, that’s OK. I hate reading interviews with me.”