Influence of special interests "a serious problem"

29.04.2021 - 12:14
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 Mynd: RÚV
“Iceland is significantly controlled by special interest groups.” So said central bank governor Ásgeir Jónsson in a recent newspaper interview. Now, the economist Gylfi Magnússon, who chairs the Central Bank of Iceland board, says he agrees.

“Yes, there is no disagreement between me and Ásgeir on that. But of course, it’s nothing new for powerful special interests to try and get their way in the system, and it’s not a specifically Icelandic problem,” Gylfi said on RÚV’s Kastljós programme yesterday evening. “But that’s not to say we have to accept it. It is a serious problem and we need to stay awake and try not to let special interest powers always win. We have that tendency because they are usually much more focused than those who are protecting the wide spread of public interests, and often have a lot of finance behind them that they can apply to securing rule changes that serve the interests of one group but not the many.” 

Fisheries are a battle of interests 

Prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said in Alþingi this week that if she had taken the newspaper interview with Ásgeir Jónsson, she would have asked him for specific examples of the special interest groups that run Iceland. Gylfi tried to answer her on Kastljós: 

“It is of course hard to count them all up, but it is also not possible to ignore the issue of the disputes over the fisheries control system and fishing industry, and conflict over the natural resources levy. That is a very clear example of a very focused battle of special interests. That’s maybe the first example that comes to mind, but there are of course many more.” 

Strong media necessary 

What can be done to fight against it? 

“It is a never-ending task for democratic systems, but there are various things that help. An open and transparent society with strong media can make things harder for special interest groups to get away with things undercover without people finding out. That can be important—as well as strong democratic systems and a quality judiciary. These are all things that are perhaps good in Iceland compared to the worst of what goes on in the world, but we are concerned that we are falling behind, for example the other Nordic countries when it comes to press freedom and even the strength of the democracy.” 

Hard for central bank to protect individual staff 

In his newspaper interview, Ásgeir criticised the attack by Samherji on Central Bank of Iceland staff when the fishing giant brought charges against five staff in connection to their investigation into alleged breaches of currency exchange rules at Samherji. 

Is the Bank helpless in that position? 

“It is very difficult for the Bank to protect individual staff members. It is much easier to defend against what could be called criticism of the Bank as a whole. But when we are talking about middle managers or more junior staff being charged or harshly criticised in the media, then it is much harder for an institution like the Central Bank to shield from those attacks.” 

Unacceptable to question staff members’ honour 

Is this a call to lawmakers? 

“Yes, Ásgeir has spoken in those terms and I think it’s obvious that should be looked into. It is the case that people who work for controversial agencies -- and the Central Bank is an example of one, and you could name more like the competition authority and many more -- they need to be able to do their jobs in peace. If people are unhappy with the results, customers if we can word it like that, then they should of course be able to look to the courts and refute some of the outcomes. They should not be able to hit back at agencies like the central bank by bringing the honour of individual staff members into question. That is totally unacceptable.” 

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