Friday, June 18, 2010

Alltaf Fer Ég Suður

Welp, this is going to be the last post until 20 July, as I'm going on vacation. There's a chance I might post in the interim, but don't count on it. I tend to forget about Icelandic news when I'm laying on a beach at the Black Sea.

Anyways, see you all in July. Have a fun summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Top Packs the Tents

So today was parliament's last day. As to be expected on the last day of work before vacation begins, people were antsy. Plus the last few days of parliament always sees a flood of activity - for example, they were in the building until about six o' clock this morning, and reconvened at eleven the same morning. I'm guessing they napped in their chairs or something.

Anyway, what did they vote on?

Well, one good thing was a resolution calling for greater freedom of expression, and greater protection for so-called whistleblowers who do investigative journalist articles on the rich and powerful. It's a great idea, and one that will hopefully lay the foundation for media and print laws to come.

Also, they voted to create a constitutional committee. This is a Very Big Deal, because this fall, there's going to be a "citizen's parliament" voted in whose job it will be to write a new constitution. Current MPs, alternate MPs, ministers, and the president are all banned from running for a spot in this. The citizen's parliament will go over the constitution, debate, propose changes and such, and then the constitutional committee will draft a new constitution for the country, which could be ready as soon as 2013.

Seeing your country write up a new constitution is pretty huge. But it's also badly needed in Iceland - we can talk about change for the better until we're blue in the face, but if the basic structure of the political system stays the same, so will virtually everything else.

Not that it was all sunshine and roses today in parliament, oh no. It seems a bill to combine several ministries together in order to save money could be in trouble. Many conservatives and Progressives were against it, yes, but so were also three members of the Leftist-Green Party: Jón Bjarnason, Atli Gíslason and Ásmundur Einar Daðason. As the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Leftist-Greens has 34 of parliament's 63 seats, this bill - despite the fact that it was a part of the government's agreement for working together - is not as solid as it first seemed.

Also, a number of MPs from the Independence Party, the Progressives, and again, Leftist-Green Ásmundur Einar Daðason called for Iceland's application into the European Union to be withdrawn. In fairness to Ásmundur, the original platform of the Leftist-Green Party includes strong opposition to joining the EU, but that changed when they teamed up with the Social Dems. Ásmundur is just old school like that.

Anyway, that's just a bit of what these ladies and gentlemen are up to today. As you can see, it's not an easy job, so if you see one of them outside tomorrow enjoying Independence Day celebrations, offer to buy them a beer or something. They could probably use it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

And Not a Drop to Drink

Parliament is currently drawing to a close, and as I type this, there are ten bills that still need to be voted on. One of them - a seemingly innocuous law on water rights submitted four years ago - has far-reaching ramifications on whether Iceland regards their natural resources as commodities or treasures.

The law, which was submitted in 2006 by the then-ruling coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressives, essentially gives land owners additional ownership of the water within their property boundaries. It's been delayed going into effect three times now and, if not withdrawn, was slated to go into effect at the end of this month. However, parliament voted just moments ago to put the law on ice until the fall, when they'll vote on it. And probably kill it.

As it is now, water belongs to the public, and it seems plenty of people want to keep it that way. A group of protesters gathered outside of parliament yesterday and used buckets to douse the building in water from a nearby pond in order to drive home their point that water should not be privatized. Public outrage over this has gotten to the point where one MP for the Social Democrats practically begged people via her blog to stop sending her emails about it.

Of course, not everyone is against the idea. The Federation of Icelandic River Owners are - surprise! - totally cool with privatizing water.

What's important to keep in mind here is that the very idea of privatizing water - which, to my mind, is sort of like privatizing air or sleep - goes against everything the Leftist-Greens stand for, as well as the Social Democrats. It is highly unlikely that they would support the law, especially with the large public outrage over it, and even the current Independence Party and Progressive MPs don't have the stones to outright support it, saying instead that they want to delay putting it into effect once again.

Which is pretty much delaying the inevitable. Parliament is going to axe this thing. If I'm wrong, I'll buy you a bottle of water.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Eat It, Haters!

So today was a pretty decent day over all. The sun was out, birds were singing, and hm ... what else? Oh yeah, that' right - Iceland's parliament passed a law creating one marriage law for all Icelanders, regardless of sexual orientation.

Yep, that's right. The bill that the national Church of Iceland was so terrified of is now a reality.

So what changed, exactly? Well, long story short, they basically took the existing marriage law that outlines all the goodies you get from being married, and replaced any mention of "man and woman" to "two individuals".

I really have nothing to add to this, except for a special message for the religious leaders of this country who enjoy our tax money while at the same time trying to restrict our human rights:


Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This Is The Song That Does Not End

So today, Dutch financial smart guy Bert Heemskerk told reporters in Holland that they ought to forget about getting all their money back from Icesave.

As I typed this up, I heaved a sigh. You see, unlike most people who just had to hear every armchair economist in the country talk on and on about Icesave, I also had to read news about Icesave and then translate news about Icesave for like, a year or something. I don't know, it's all kind of a blur.

The last I'd heard, the president killed the law that was passed, a public referendum killed it further, and so the government pretty much said, "Welp, guess we better wait until elections in the UK and Holland." And then that was that.

I guess I was hoping we could all just forget about this and then get on with our lives, but apparently, some people get upset when their life savings and pension funds disappear overnight with little hope of seeing that money again.

You might've noticed there are two sides to this. On the one hand, you have people saying that Iceland is bound by international commerce and finance laws within the European Economic Area that compel us to cover a certain amount of those deposits. On the other hand, you have people asking why taxpayers should be covering the losses incurred by bank managers who are all currently walking free and livin' large.

Here's what will actually happen: Icesave negotiations are going to drag on for so long that eventually the UK and Holland are going to accept some sort of partial payment plan that will be like a thin, slow trickle from Iceland's treasury.

Ideally, every bank manager in Iceland should have their assets frozen and sold off, and the proceeds from that should be then given to all the Icesave depositors, but no one invited me to the negotiations table. I'm just one man, people.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sometimes, There Are No Good Decisions

Where Icesave used to be the topic that everyone loves to hate to talk about, it's now the economy. I can honestly say I am glad - no, delighted that I am not in parliament anymore, because whenever the subject of the economy comes up, you'll hear plenty of opinions about what this government is doing, and none of these opinions are good.

Forget the fact that Moody's raised Iceland's rank from Negative to Stable, or that unemployment is decreasing, or that inflation is dropping. It's been a little over a year since the Social Dems and Leftist-Greens took over, and these changes for the better are not enough to satiate most people. In fairness, most people aren't really feeling these changes in their daily lives, and there's still some complicated stuff going on with how to deal with personal loans. But worst of all, the government needs to make more cuts still.

Cue the latest decision from upstairs: Minister of Social Affairs Árni Páll Árnason announced yesterday a salary cap on public employees until the year 2013. His reasoning is it's either salary caps, or people getting fired.

I'm a public employee. My day job is working at an occupational center for disabled people. We're under the Ministry of Social Affairs. Come 2011, we're going to be under the command of the municipal government, and who knows how that's going to go. We've been told it won't be any worse than working for the state. Wow, awesome. That's reassuring.

Anyway, people at work today were pretty upset about the salary cap, and they wouldn't be alone - the Union of Public Servants is frankly furious about this right now.

And that's just the thing. Whenever the government needs to save money, there are two choices: make cuts or raise taxes. Everyone knows this. Yet neither decision is going to make anyone happy. Wherever you cut, or whoever has to pay more taxes, the government is going to get flack for it.

The worst part of all is that the Independence Party - the same guys who trashed our economy - are actually growing in popularity, while support for the ruling coalition is decreasing. The conservatives are still not as popular as the ruling coalition, but come on. It's been a year, people. We're not living the high life by any stretch and we still gotta long way to go, but why would you hand this country back to the people who bankrupted us?

It's like an abusive relationship or something. "He said he was sorry. Maybe this time, he means it." Snap out of it already!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oh Goodness Me Am I Ever Surprised!

You know, whenever talk of Iceland's economic collapse comes up, sooner or later the name "Davíð Oddsson" is mentioned. This is because this guy was not only Prime Minister of Iceland from 1991 until 2004 - he was also Chairman of the Central Bank from 2005 to 2009. And we all know how that went.

Now, I don't need to tell you Oddsson was featured pretty prominently in the Special Investigative Commission report, where he is shown - in his own words and others' - to be clueless at best and, at worst, in collusion with morals-free bank managers. Oddsson, of course, has always maintained his innocence, which is easy to do when you've been hired by one of the country's most respected newspapers at the behest of its conservative owners to be the new editor shortly after losing your Central Bank job, while dozens of journalists are purged from the ranks.

Anyway, I won't go into what an institution this guy is in Icelandic politics. Suffice it to say there are many people who are genuinely terrified of him. Which is probably why today, state prosecutor Björn L. Bergsson told a parliamentary committee that he sees no reason to initiate a criminal case against Oddsson for his part in the economic crash.

Well color me shocked. And here I am with my quaint notions that the guy in charge of the nation's banks, pre-collapse - whose economic libertarian policies not only shaped the Independence Party but the Icelandic business world, and who depicts himself in the SIC report as being genuinely negligent - ought to at least be brought before a judge.

When will I learn?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meet Your New Mayor, Reykjavík

It's official now. Jón Gnarr is going to be the next mayor of Reykjavík, Social Democrat Dagur B. Eggertsson is going to be the chairman of city council and, most importantly of all, the conservatives of Reykjavík are going to be benched this term.

I just want to repeat that: the Independence Party are not going to be in the city council majority. They will, instead, be in the opposition. Just like in parliament.

Man that felt good to say. Almost makes me want a cigarette or something. Am I an immature schadenfreude addict? You bet I am.

So what is this going to mean for the city? We don't know yet. But what I can tell you is, the two parties are negotiating their plan for the city, and you can take part in it via the website Betri Reykajvík, and submit your own ideas for what the new majority coalition can do.

Don't understand Icelandic? Don't worry - submit your suggestions in English anyway. In Gnarr's most recent interview with the Grapevine, currently in our new issue, the new mayor not only said he's going to have the website translated into English, he added:

"Every good thing in Iceland has come from abroad. It’s always been like that—it’s what Icelandic culture is made up of, and it’s created a diversity within our society. Ever since the island was settled. Our forefathers most likely came from abroad, you know.

Foreign influence enriches our culture and contributes greatly to creating a harmonious, diverse and multi-layered community. Enriching our culture is a personal ambition of mine, I am a fan of diversity and I abhor uniformity. A diverse community makes for a mature society, which is what we should strive for. "

You hear that? Every good thing in Iceland has come from abroad. Chin up, foreigners - you improve the country!

I gotta say, I have a good feeling about this guy. He might be feeling his way through his tasks, but you can't deny the clarity of his convictions.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Good Idea, Bad Idea

I remember once when I was in parliament, I told a colleague of mine how brilliant I thought the idea would be of ministers not being members of parliament - that those MPs who get voted in, and subsequently appointed to ministerial positions, should surrender their seats in parliament to whoever was beneath them on the list. To me, this seemed like a fine separation of powers. My colleague sort of smirked and shook his head and said, "You know why the Progressives once proposed that? Because they were in the ruling coalition then. Doing that basically puts the ruling coalition in an even stronger position than they already are."

And I realized he was right. There are 63 seats in parliament, 12 of which are ministerial seats. Now imagine that two parties - X and Y - have 35 seats combined and are the ruling coalition. 12 of their 35 seats are ministerial seats. But now, change it so that they have 35 seats in addition to 12 ministerial seats. Even if the ministers cannot vote on legislation, you can't very well prevent them from speaking on submitted bills or otherwise having influence. You can see why any party in the ruling coalition would consider this a good idea.

Well, guess what new bill is being stressed must be made into law now? And hey, big surprise, it's being proposed by one of the parties in the ruling coalition. The Social Democrats are calling for this to be made into law this month.

Interestingly enough, the Progressives are also on board. Great expectations, eh?

Don't get me wrong. I like the ruling coalition and what they're trying to do. I certainly don't think the right would do it much better. But I also don't think adding the proposed ten new MPs, and their subsequent salaries and benefits, is a very good idea. Especially if the right should happen to win next election year, heaven help us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Most of you are probably aware by now that The Best Party and the Social Democrats have set up this neat little website, Betri Reykjavík, which allows people to give the currently-forming city coalition suggestions and ideas about what matters should be addressed, and how. It's a great idea, in my opinion. But I think we can take this farther.

US president Barack Obama, back when he was running for office and everyone loved him, once proposed that new non-emergency legislation be posted for five days on a special website, where the general public could read and comment on the bills. It was a fine idea, but logistically speaking it was just impossible to execute. We're talking about over 300 million people, for one, and about 10,000 bills are introduced to Congress every year.

However, Iceland has just over 300,000 people, and parliament hardly ever sees more than 200 bills submitted in a given term. We could very feasibly set up such a website here.

Actually, submitted bills can already be viewed online, at the parliament's website. Provided you know how to navigate it, you can see what bills are on the floor, where they are in the committee process, and what members of parliament have put their names to them. The only problem is, the parliament's website is frankly a mess. Something simpler to use - more streamlined and easy to navigate - would be well advised.

In addition, it'd also be a good idea if the gang over at Reykjavík city hall found a way to translate their website into other languages. Or at least into English. Plenty of people living in this town who are working, paying taxes, and otherwise contributing to our community might not have the best grasp of Icelandic, but that doesn't mean they're less worthy of taking part in the discussion of what goes on here.

Anyways, just a thought for Gnarr and company.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pulling the Wool Over Your Own Eyes

While many other parties are now eating humble pie in the wake of last Saturday's elections, it's amazing to see some of the acrobatics politicians are willing to go through in order to make their dismal situation look like a day at Disneyworld.

The Progressives are comically guilty of this right now. Pretty much wiped out in the capital region altogether, with only one councilperson in Kópavogur and another in Álftanes, Progressive MP Guðmundur Steingrímsson recently very correctly asserted that party chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson ought to shoulder at least some of the blame for the party's appalling numbers. And naturally, Sigmundur showed the type of classiness he's famous for.

First, he told reporters that the only explanation for Guðmundur's remarks is that "it must have been some kind of performance on his part", because he can't imagine what would possess him to say such a thing. Oh, certainly. Why should the party chairman himself bear any blame for the party's poor showings in the polls? There's got to be some other explanation.

And Sigmundur had one: the Best Party is to blame, everyone. In an e-mail he sent to party members, Sigmundur said that "the results in Reykjavík disappointed everyone, but when a new campaign upsets the history of elections in the city, other campaigns don't get a chance to be a part of it." Which is pretty weak. Yes, every party in Reykjavík lost support, but Sigmundur acts as though his party's low numbers began with the Best Party. In fact, the Progressives were projected way back in February to lose their one and only seat in Reykjavík city hall - at that time, the Best Party was polling at about, oh, nothing.

Sigmundur then engaged in some mathematical acrobatics, contending that "the Progressives aren't exactly unpopular in the capital area", citing a recent Gallup poll that showed that 25% of residents of one neighborhood in Reykjavík, Grafarvogur, said that they could conceivably see themselves voting for the Progressives. You know, when I was in high school, plenty of girls said they could conceivably see themselves going on a date with me. It almost never happened, which depressed me some, but Sigmundur has shown me that I was actually a very popular guy.

The cherry on top was him saying that plenty of people in the capital area that Progressive staffers spoke to expressed a willingness to vote for the party, but - once again - that darned Best Party got in the way, and they ended up not voting for them.

If Sigmundur saved the energy he spends on making excuses for failure, and used it instead to actually stop using empty populist rhetoric and start actually improving his party, they might get somewhere. I know a number of fine people in the Progressive Party, believe it or not. They have convictions, and a good head on their shoulders. Sigmundur would do well to listen to those who disagree with him, instead of dismissing them as "performers".