Where Is He Taking Us? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Where Is He Taking Us?

Where Is He Taking Us?

Published September 24, 2010

Haukur S. Magnússon
Photos by
Baldur Kristjáns

We’re still wondering: What happened? How did Iceland get knocked so flat on its collective ass? And what’s being done about it? So we thought we’d call up our Minister of Finance, Left Green chairman Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, and ask him. To our surprise, he picked up. Here’s what we talked about.

The short version

Since this is a tourist magazine, and in English, we need to start at the beginning—we can’t assume that folks will know what we’re talking about. You are Minister of Finance—how did that happen?

It happened thusly: a government fell here in the end of January 2009, following a bank collapse in October of 2008. This resulted in great civic and political unrest, lots of troubles and hardship and the government that was then in place was forced to admit defeat. People had been talking about possibly forming a national government [where all parties collaborate] to respond to the unrest, but the then-government was not fond of the idea. But they eventually became exhausted, their coalition shattered and a new government was formed by the Left Green Party and the Social Democratic Alliance. The Progressive Party supported that government until that spring’s election.

In the elections of April 2009, we and the Social Democrats won a pure majority combined [thus eliminating the need for the Progressives’ support] and we formed a government. 

I am chairman of one of the two ruling parties, and have dealt with economics and finance, so it was natural that I would become Minister of Finance. Actually, I also served as Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture during our minority government period—that was a very busy time—but since May 10, 2009, I have focused only on the state’s finances. It is a big job, as a lot of the problems created by the collapse wind up on my desk. I think I can safely assert that no one got as big a portion of collapse-related problems as I did.

That’s the short version. 

Money. Lots of it

Can you describe taking over the job in February of 2009? What sort of estate did your predecessor leave you?

It was hard, of course, everything had been pretty much paralysed here by the horrific events that unfolded and the pressure of dealing with them. The government that burst was not very functional by the end and several matters were frozen. So we had to pull up our sleeves and get things moving, put a lot of projects into motion as soon as we started.

We resorted to various temporary measures to assist companies and homes that were experiencing trouble; we granted them various leniencies on payments and allowed taxes to be paid over a longer period of time. We greatly increased interest relief to help families that were hurt by how much their loans had gone up as a result of the collapse.

Of course we didn’t manage to finish everything we intended to, such as greatly improving the state of our democracy by introducing a direct, person-based voting system, a constituent assembly, etc. We managed to complete some of those goals, but not all. However, this was in my view a diligent and energetic government that was successful in doing the best it could in the short time that it had.

As an amateur, I have to wonder what it was exactly that had to be dealt with…

On one hand all the loans skyrocket along with the interest rate, the króna collapses and there’s suddenly a gaping void of money that needs to be filled… The effects on the state treasury were dramatic, and its income basis collapsed completely. It’s evident when you note that in 2007 the state treasury had a surplus of 89 billion ISK, while by the end of 2008 there was a 216 billion ISK deficit. The downswing in state income was also unprecedented.

And the Central Bank went technically bankrupt and we had to refinance it. That’s the largest single amount we’ve had to pay thus far, what the state had to shell out because of the Central Bank. We wrote off 192 billion ISK in 2008 as a result. That’s a lot of money. 

Imaginary assets 

This money that vanished—where did it go?

A lot of the state’s assets burned up; our equity lost its value and both real and imaginary assets got lost. We don’t mourn the imaginary assets, the bubble assets, but a lot of very real ones burned up and became worthless overnight, in companies and banks. Unemployment skyrocketed; a lot of people that previously had well paying jobs lost them, which meant a decreased income for the state. This is a vicious circle. The public’s spending power decreases, so income based on tolling and taxing imports is lost—and then we have to pay interest of our debts.

A lot of what we need to do to accomplish this can be hard and painful—and we’re not finished yet—but we’ve made some great advances. Things are going well, and the situation now is a lot better than was predicted in the direct aftermath of the collapse. Inflation is fast receding and our economy is straightening out, so despite everything that’s gone down in the past eighteen months we are definitely on the right track, even if it is a big struggle. I don’t want to credit the state treasury or me as Finance Minister with our success, but we have still have managed to solve a lot of problems connected to the ministry.

 This is where the biggest and hardest problems created by the banking collapse wound up to be resolved—aside from running the state treasury and managing problems related to that, our banks went bankrupt so we needed to reconstruct them. The Ministry of Finance handled all that work and the negotiations connected to it.

Processing the collapse

We also are in charge of the horrible IceSave affair that remains unsolved, and we needed to negotiate with foreign states and central banks to receive currency loans. We also handle a big part of the International Monetary Fund negotiations, we’re restoring the savings banks… these are all hard and complicated tasks that are added to the ministry’s day to day duties.

We’ve worked towards assisting the economy, helping businesses and homes through troubles. We’re trying to work beyond just putting out fires and solving problems, presenting new ideas such as tax breaks for start-ups and innovators, and we introduced stimulating measures to increase demand for contractors, raising VAT rebates for construction and restoration work. We are sending out the message that now is a good time to build or renovate, and the state is supporting that with tax breaks… I could go on.

We’ve started an innumerable amount of these kinds of measures, and any claims that this government has been inactive are wrong, simply put. We have worked very hard, under very difficult circumstances. Of course this has been trying; it has been a busy and unbelievable time. And on top all this, we have been investigating the collapse and what lead to it, the SIC [Special Investigative Committee] Report, the Special Prosecutor; there are a lot of things to tend to in terms of processing the collapse. So to sum it up, you could say our task is threefold: to keep things running, to investigate the collapse and its causes, and laying the foundations of a renaissance. And I think it’s going very well, even though the situation is still fragile…

No room for ideology

Following the discourse, and especially in terms of what the opposition is saying, it wouldn’t seem like you’re doing all that much, nor that you’ve had any success. Based on their criticisms and their track record, can you imagine what a coalition between the Progressives and The Independents would be doing? Would their measures be any different, in your view?
I am not sure of that. As I have said, reality takes over in the end. You may foster an ideology and lots of ideas on how to do things, but they ultimately clash with reality.

In a situation such as ours, people have to be realistic, face it as it is and seek out the solutions and methods that are available, to pick the comparatively best ones. That leaves little room for ideologies.

I am not saying that how things are done isn’t important, it certainly is, but to some extent our options are very much limited by our circumstances. I am convinced that any government would have chosen a mixed way as we are doing—it’s the only option, really. Reality takes over, and even the most hardline neo-liberals would realise that you cannot solve these problems without resorting to every measure. The choice to be political and ideological in these times simply isn’t an option.

It does matter, however, how you choose to do the things that need to be done, how you implement the necessary changes. For instance, we are trying our utmost to preserve our welfare system and shield it from cutbacks—we are cutting half as much from the budget of social services, education and police than other areas. We are showing it through our taxation methods by adding taxation to those in the highest income bracket while sparing the lowest one by introducing a special low-income bracket. We are trying to preserve the standard of living for those that make the least money. This is where politics enters the sphere; this is where they’re important.

We haven’t had a lot of choices, and I am totally convinced that the Independence Party, that bears so much responsibility for the collapse after its eighteen years in power, isn’t fit to undertake this task. They don’t have the credibility, people would remember. A change in government back in 2009 wasn’t only inevitable, it was absolutely necessary

McDonalds no more?

There seems to be a certain determinism at work when you claim you don’t have a choice, yet it is evident that many of your party members are ideologically motivated. Were you never tempted to… try something new? Don’t you imagine some of them had hopes you would?

You can’t place too deep a meaning in my words when I say that we are subject to our circumstances. In this instance we do not get to choose the battlefield or the tasks at hand, the collapse determined that. We have a job to do, and our first responsibility is to defend our society and its interiors, to ensure that every aspect of it is functioning and that we see our way out of these troubles. That’s number one.

That’s not to say we don’t have convictions on how society should work, we have plenty of those and no one should imagine even for a second that we are rebuilding the same society that collapsed, or the same economy. We aren’t. We are for instance re-building banks at a tenth of the size they were when they crashed. The financial system will now be owned by the state again, after it had been privatised with horrible results. We have a clear vision of where we are heading: towards a Nordic welfare society, away from toying with neo-liberal ideas and Americanisation.

We are experiencing a clear turning point in our political history; Iceland is heading in a different direction than it was in the years before the crash. I say that we are returning home. And where is home? It is in the Nordic family, with a strong Nordic, mutually responsible welfare system. These are our politics, just so that’s clear. 

Quick change?

Just how fast we can accomplish these changes—can we revolutionise the system while we are trying to keep it from collapsing entirely—that is an altogether trickier subject. I think we are going to have to accept that this is a long road to recovery we are on. When we are done restoring and rebuilding our politics and ideologies will be clear. We want a society that is entirely different from what we had back in 2006, free of the greed and the overconfidence in the market that prevailed. The gospel said: “no supervision, the market will correct itself, it is infallible!”

That ideology has crumbled to the ground. We now know what to do, and I think Iceland has changed a lot both in terms of political ideology and also public opinion. Try walking the streets and asking pedestrians whether they support privatisation. I predict that 90% of those you poll will answer with a resounding no. Four years ago, I think you would have gotten reverse results. An ideology had been bashed into the nation’s head, the state had been relentlessly talked down and the market glorified. They laid a lot of groundwork for that ideology, which has now collapsed.

Damaged

It is pleasing to note that the discourse now is more open and critical than it used to be. We are not going to be treated like this again. This is good, and I won’t complain that us in the government or me personally are subject to constant criticism. People are keeping a close and critical watch, and this is good. The only thing that worries me is that the Kreppa is now stuck in our heads, that we are too focused on our problems. A lot of good things are happening, and we must not ignore that.

But many pillars of our society are damaged by the collapse. Our politics are in a state of shock, you could say our entire political system is damaged, as the municipal elections in Reykjavík showed. One of the things that crashed is faith in society. There is a lot of suspicion and distrust around; it is inevitable when such things happen, when something happens that shouldn’t happen, that must not happen. And people naturally feel like they’ve been betrayed. That a lot of people let them down, and there is a lot of truth in that, as the SIC Report reveals very clearly. We have a lot of work on our hands reclaiming what was lost, to reconstruct not only the material entities but also restore trust and faith in our community, so people can start trusting Parliament, regulatory agencies and the media again.

“I will keep at this”

Do you honestly believe that you’ll be given a chance to finish your work? The Independence Party hasn’t polled higher since before the collapse, it seems to be widely accepted that you will finish this term and then return to your former place in the opposition…

Well, if we manage to finish this term, which I hope, I do believe we are best suited to follow this work through. If we manage to get Iceland through these difficulties, which we are well on our way to doing, we can look back on that work and say: See! We took over their ruins, and we restored order, we resurrected Iceland.

That will be a decent reward in itself. I can’t really ask for more than when all this is through I can stand proud and rightfully exclaim: I did all I could, I sacrificed myself to this task, I spent all my time, my energy, my efforts on restoring Iceland. I did my best.

And I do believe that if one compares the current situation to what we were facing by the end of 2008, to what was predicted in terms of the economy, it gives great reason for optimism. We need to keep that in mind.

 I am both a mountain climber and a marathon runner, and I do not give up easily. I’ve said it before and I can repeat it for Grapevine: I will resign the day I lose faith in our ability to solve the problems at hand, but while I still believe it is doable—and I am convinced that it is—I will keep right at it.

Marathon man

You speak of marathons, climbing mountains and sacrificing yourself for the cause of rebuilding Iceland… I am sure folks are generally grateful for your hard work, but are you sure this is a healthy way to work? What is your average workday like? People say you’re always on the job…

I am at the office from before eight in the morning and usually at least until dinnertime, often I spend the evening here too. I frequently work weekends, and you could say that I barely took a day off last year. I have no vacation to speak of; I get the occasional weekend off. I avoid going abroad unless it’s absolutely necessary, when I need to protect our interests or negotiate with foreign nations or international foundations.

This year, I’ve made an effort to maintain a slightly more normal working routine, and that’s working so and so… the workday is long, and of course it’s tiring. I wouldn’t want to burn myself out, but fortunately I am relatively healthy and I have good stamina.  

So I plan on maintaining the juice in my batteries. I can’t hide that it’s trying, and it’s not just the work that affects you. The environment and atmosphere surrounding the job is also a factor. We are not immune to the discourse and various jabs pointed at us, but I try to maintain an understanding that the public’s vocal dissatisfaction and our status in the polls doesn’t necessarily mean that people are unhappy with what we’re doing or that it could be any different.

I try to remember that there is so much repressed rage and unhappiness, people are angry over what happened and it is normal to criticise the powers that be at any time.

Of course there are many that believe we could have done more, for instance to assist families with their debt. There a lot of talk regarding that, and it is hard to be in the position to have to say that we are trying our best but we simply cannot do more. This is our reality. There are limits to what we can do; we are in a difficult position. We will have to slowly defeat this thing, we will have to be patient, understanding and maintain unity. We gain nothing from strife and struggle; we need to row together on the same boat, in the right direction. We can do this.

But all marathons have a finishing line… where do you see yours?

Our ultimate goal is to get our society and our economy back in working order, to envision being on top of our debt and not needing outside help, to get unemployment down to reasonable numbers. There is more than one goal; we will measure our success incrementally. A nation does not live to fulfil a single goal; it is a constant evolving story with peaks and valleys.

WTF!

What happened? You are privy to a lot of information that the general public isn’t, so it seems fair to ask: What happened? How do we explain it to our international readership?

  What I think happened is that firstly, we got addicted to an ideology. The ideology of neo-liberalism and blind faith in ‘the market’ was steadily promoted to the nation, and Icelanders adopted its attitudes and tenets to an extreme and blindly trod forth.

Iceland was, for all purposes, transformed into a laboratory, a testing ground for greedy neo-liberal, privatisation ideals. They privatised the banks and various other state enterprises alongside pushing an environment of deregulation and lax supervision. A group of young and energetic men surfaced that took advantage of this environment to the full extent. All of the sudden we were the best in the world, we were experts at banking and finance and thought we could teach established nations, like Denmark, how to do business. We were beset by a puerile and nouveau riche arrogance, an entire generation lost all moral restraint. People flaunted their wealth and boasted of it, they could only travel in private jets and the flamboyance and vulgarity surrounding Iceland was such that it got noticed the world round.

Their dishonest business practices along with the government’s many failures in managing the economy added to a problem that was too big to handle. One only needed to look at the gauges to see where we were headed in 2006-7, to see things were going seriously wrong.

Some people tried to point this out, the occasional banker or scholar—and myself. I wrote articles, I gave speeches, I wrote an entire book where I warned of the path we were taking. But we were too few. The environment and zeitgeist at the time was such that warning voices were laughed off, at best. This was a dangerous atmosphere, any healthy introspection or self-criticism was totally absent. I have remarked that what happened at the core was the complete defeat of critical thinking. We lost control of ourselves and of the situation, and it can never be allowed to happen again.

You can analyse this from various perspectives. The economical one, but also from a political, ideological and social standpoint. It is important that we don’t overlook any of these factors when we try to understand what happened here.

The never-ending party

You say you warned that this would happen, but you evidently had no success. Do you feel you should have employed different methods?

Well… [laughs]… I’ve thought a lot about that. Truth be told, I am troubled by it and feel like I need to look inwards, just like others. Why did we, who saw the signs, who knew something was deeply wrong, why did we fail in getting our voices heard. When I try to seek explanation I feel it isn’t because I didn’t try hard enough. I resorted to every mean at my disposal, I wrote articles, I gave speeches, I put forth several motions in Parliament to try and reclaim economic stability. I submitted the first one in 2005, I was deeply worried about the situation back then and in the accompanying statement I portrayed the risks facing us. I even explicitly say in one place: “All the same signs are appearing in Iceland that lead to the Scandinavian banking recession around 1990. We are headed for the same kind of bubble, which is very dangerous.”

One of the reasons this was so hard was that there were so few of us that actively opposed this ideology. It had a nice ring to it, and claimed to usher in a new era of globalisation, innovation and evolution. The party was so fun that nobody wanted to ruin it and say: “Alright, it’s two in the morning and we all need to go home.” It was like everyone thought the party would last forever; that there would always be enough champagne and we would never have to pay the tab. 
But all parties come to an end, and then you need to clean up the mess and pay your bills. This is what we’re doing.

And of course it is remarkable that my party and I—who were the most vocal critics of this ideology and really the only party that actively opposed it—that it would be up to us to clean the house and foot the bill. But that’s just how it is. Someone needs to do it, and it’s important that it’s done well. I do think, however, that the people that threw the party and sent out the invitations are not the right people to clean it up.

Rumours

I heard a rumour shortly after you took over, which said you were trying to make sense of what had happened to Iceland, that you are trying to clean up the mess but it simply wasn’t possible. That you were telling folks it was the biggest bank robbery in the history of the world, worse than anything people had heard happened in Argentina and other places we’d heard horror stories about… is this true?

Well, the events that unfolded here… they are unparalleled in world history. We keep hearing that our banks account for the sixth, ninth and tenth largest bankruptcies ever. It is nonsensical that such a small economy can foster three bankruptcies out of the top ten. The banks had grown so absurdly large and inflated.

 So in that sense these events will certainly go down in world history, that such a tiny economy can experience such a vast collapse. I will not compare us to other countries, but I advise people to read the SIC Report’s findings about the banks, and to read the charges being pressed by Glitnir’s estate against that bank’s managers—where they straight out say that they robbed the bank from within. That they used their ownership to fleece it from the inside. And they did this with large, established companies too.

They bought firms in good standing, like Eimskip and Icelandair, and in a matter of years they had transformed them into empty shells encasing a pile of debt. Their methodology, of extracting the valuables from the companies, accumulating debt and using it as leverage for other investments, etc., it was truly an unbelievable culture. And it is surely unparalleled in the world, at least at such a hypercharged version.  

IMF! IMF! IMF! OMG! OMG!


What about the IMF. One hears many ugly stories of their involvement with developing nations and nations in crisis, of selling off resources, privatisation and the like. Now they’ve opened an office here and are working with the government… do you think it’s strange that people are afraid of this fund with its track record, and do you believe what is said about it internationally?

It is true that it has a spotty track record and I’ll be the first to admit that. I was against seeking its assistance, I would have liked to explore every other option, but we had already entered an agreement with them when we took over. And I do think that a lot has changed within the IMF. It is very aware that it is working with one of the Nordic welfare states, an open, democratic Nordic society. This is a new school for the IMF; they are well aware that they are being watched by the international community and they would be disgraced if they behaved belligerently.

I honestly can’t complain about our cooperation thus far, it’s been an objective one and we have been able to affect their plan and adapt it to our wishes in many ways. But of course it isn’t anything anyone would wish for, to be dependent on such an organisation, and I will celebrate the day we are through with their program and aren’t reliant on them anymore.

Will Parliament ever grow up?

Speaking of Parliament, I as a citizen—along with many of my friends—often cringe when observing Parliament at work and noting the work methods that seem to be employed. From my perspective—and I am not alone—it reeks of amateurism, especially during debates. Watching this group of adults attempt to work is a baffling and embarrassing experience, one sometimes wishes they would just shut up and do their jobs already…

This is a rather tricky subject… the aforementioned Parliamentary committee makes remarks that Parliament’s position needs to be strengthened and the conditions for sophisticated work methods improved. And they also severely criticise the political culture—if one could call it a culture—that has been dominant here. I think that there’s a lot of truth to what they’re saying. We need to make serious amends. 

And the criticism that’s being directed at Parliament and the public’s lack of trust in it is partially justified… but partially not.

One of the problems is the image the media portrays of Parliament and the face it frequently shows the nation. It is negative. Attention is most often directed at debates that occur at the start of Parliamentary sessions, and what happens there honestly won’t win us any respect. That doesn’t change the fact our MPs are turning in a lot of work that’s generally well prepared and thought out. And the greater part of our MPs contribute substantially to important tasks regarding legislation and resolving issues. The majority of the cases we handle we handle in agreement.

Maybe this is where Parliament needs to get a grip; we need to resolve these minor issues using the platforms we have, in our committees and during party meetings instead of bickering about them in Parliamentary sessions. If we did that, I believe the public’s perception of Parliament would be very different. As it is now, we are spending way too much time publicly arguing about work methods, procedure, scheduling and the like. With all due respect, but you do realise the people are sending around clips of [Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture] Jón Bjarnason being interviewed… and laughing at him. He seems to be widely considered a joke…

That’s an entirely different matter. We are all different, we all have our own style of communicating and talking. People are free to amuse themselves however they want, but I do not want to standardise Parliament and fill it with cloned types that are all the same. It is important that Parliament represents all aspects of society and provides a cross-section of it, that it contains both men and women, young people and older people. Folks with different backgrounds that come from different sectors of society. The last thing I want to see is Parliament being filled with male lawyers aged 35–45, which has sometimes seemed to be the ambition of certain parties. That’s not the Parliament I want to see.

Cooperation, compromise

As an MP throughout the years—and let’s not forget you are the longest serving MP aside from our Prime Minister—you’ve seemed very ideologically driven. You abandoned the formative talks for the Social Democratic Alliance back in the ‘90s—an attempt to unify the left under one banner—opting to start a party that would be closer to your ideals, to name one example. Yet now you are part of a government that has done many things that seem to directly counter what you’ve made yourself out to stand for.

You said earlier that during times of crisis there may not be a lot of room for ideology, but how can you remain convincing when you say one thing when you’re an MP and quite another when you’ve become a minister and finally have the power to instigate change. There are many examples, like your government apparently allowing ECA, a private military training corporation, to set up shop here.

Well. We are part of a coalition government, and such cooperation always calls for some compromise. It’s a natural part of being in government and working with other parties, you won’t accomplish everything you would like. And this means you have a choice: are you willing to make that sacrifice, to serve your higher ideals, to never be willing to negotiate with others or make a compromise…?
That is a stance in itself, but it follows that parties that revert to this method are permanently relinquishing any attempts at influence through being in power and in government. It means abandoning the chance of acquiring a position to make a lot of things on their wish list happen, it means settling for a life in opposition. I happen to be familiar with both being in opposition and part of a government, this is not my first time as a minister, and I know what each role entails. As soon as you cooperate with someone, you are going to have to compromise your ideals. 

If you are putting out a fire, you don’t care so much what colour your water bucket is. You just have to keep your house from burning down. But once the fire starts dying down you can be more picky with your buckets, maybe purchase some environmentally friendly buckets for the next round of firefighting.

And it might be noted that even despite these difficult circumstances we as a government and Parliamentary majority have made several reformatory changes, for instance in the field of human rights and women’s rights, changes that were inconceivable during the reign of our previous governments as the Independence Party would veto them every time.

Can you name specific examples?

We criminalised the purchase of prostitution, we outlawed stripping, we now have one matrimony law for everyone. The Minister of Justice no longer can arbitrarily appoint judges according to his will, we abolished that power and now judges are appointed by a committee of professionals. I could go on…

Human rights

Staying on the theme of human rights. The brunt of our readers are foreigners from all over the world, and many of them have a mind to make Iceland their home, to work here, raise families and contribute to our society. And it seems—according to what a lot of them are saying in their letters and phone calls to us—that our Directorate of Immigration is one of the most inhumane institutions currently operating. That it shows no regard for personal situations of individuals, opting instead to treat them as numbers on a piece of paper. People are being deported with some very questionable reasoning, and then the process of immigrating to Iceland from outside of the Schengen area seems all but impossible. It seems like the island has been fenced off with barbed wire…

Yes, there might be something to all this… However, I don’t want to accept that the Directorate of Immigration’s procedures are as bleak as you say; on the contrary we were determined to fix a lot of things there. And I think that despite everything, our former Minister of Justice Ragna Árnadóttir did a lot of good things in this field. She took over a difficult ministry after [former Minister of Justice, Independence Party member] Björn Bjarnason’s long stint there. But we have accomplished a lot of reform in this field since taking over, that is a fact. We paid a lot of attention to the topic and worked together with the minister on amending several problems.

 We set out to put these matters in as good a condition as is possible, but our possibilities are certainly limited by the fact that we are cooperating with Europe on these matters and Europe has instated certain rules that we have committed to following. We chose to look to Norway, because it is our opinion that they are doing the best job of handling their immigration affairs. And we for instance ceased deporting refugees to Greece. Like the Norwegians, we waited for an assessment on the situation in Greece before proceeding. We now work under the rule that every case be looked at individually and family circumstances and others be taken into account.

I do know that a lot of people are unhappy with these affairs still, and deporting someone will always be painful and difficult. But we have to work within some sort of regulatory framework.
We also must remember that if we plan on hosting international refugees, we need to do it in a decent manner, and we must be capable and equipped to do so. There needs to be an ambition to do it well and the oversight to handle every unique case so that new Icelanders are capable of easily adapting to our society and building a new life here.

Are there any plans to reconsider our current regulatory structure concerning immigration?

Yes, I think that’s rather likely and as I have said we are first and foremost trying to ensure that we are handling these affairs in the best possible way. The discourse around it needs to be calm and informed, and we need to realise that there are two opposing factors that need consideration. On one hand we want to be able to contribute to aiding those in need, to offer suffering refugees a place to stay and live their lives; and to keep Iceland open to international influence and immigration. On the other there is a risk that if we do not carefully tend to these affairs that they will wind up fanning the flames of racism, prejudice and social unrest.

Adding to that, I must admit, I have always had certain worries regarding Icelanders in those matters. An unpleasant feeling in the back of my neck tells me that we maybe would not display exemplary behaviour…

Herding cats

PM Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir allegedly said that working with the Left Greens was like herding cats… do you have an equally poetic description of your cooperation with the Social Democrats?
This comment, it was something that someone supposedly said at some time and the PM repeated. Oh, I don’t really pay attention to such nonsense. As a whole, our cooperation has worked well, at least things have always been good between the PM and I, which is important. I believe that we have full confidence in one another and that our relationship an honest one. And in general our people are working well together in committees and elsewhere.

Then we have our differences and problems; it’s no secret that we have been faced with some very taxing problems, and that has added strain to the relationship between the parties. But I don’t believe that us Left Greens are constantly forced to compromise according the Social Democrats will, as some have insinuated.

The current situation would strain any government. That is self-evident. We have been regularly subject to a different and major catastrophe, day after day, month after month—it is important to remain calm and sensible, to confront the issues as they come along and try solving them without resorting to panic.

It has been like this for almost two years now. I frequently wake up in the morning without any idea what trouble lurks ahead, it’s been one major event after the other and I just try to leave the house with that in mind. A volcano might erupt, a Supreme Court verdict might cause severe civil unrest, IceSave, herring disease… you just try to remain calm and do your job. This has been an eventful and demanding time, one I think no Member of Parliament—no Icelander for that matter—will ever forget.

Anger, rage, sorrow

Do you ever get angry about the situation? About the way things turned out?

Anger is not a big motivating factor for me. I think it’s important to remain calm and serene, that is the only way I can do my job. That said, yes, of course I get angry. When confronted with information or evidence of gross misconduct or criminal negligence. Sorrow is a more common reaction with me when I learn how things were done here, how the nation’s well-being was continually and recklessly endangered. I get sad or angry.

I was furious the day I read the SIC report. I had planned on being coolheaded about it but wound up really angry. You could probably tell from my speech at Alþingi that day. Why was I angry? It screamed out at me. It was all so familiar. Everything I was trying to say, all the ignored warning signs. In hindsight, it was so evident that we were headed for catastrophe, literally all the signs were pointing towards that. When I was reminded of that, I was furious.

At who? Your predecessors? Voters?

At everything, really. Things happened that should not and cannot and may not happen. Things should never turn out so badly at the cost of so many, requiring such great sacrifices. It is clear that a lot of people failed tremendously, one cannot reach any other conclusion. And of course it’s easy to get outraged or depressed over such events. But it is important to remain calm. To wrestle each problem as it comes along. No one will gain anything from empty anger.

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