Parliament To Stop Reimbursing MP Travel Six Weeks Before Elections

Steingrímur J. Sigfússon

Parliament’s Speaker’s Committee is introducing a bill suggesting that six weeks before an election, Parliament will cease reimbursing MPs for travel. Speaker Steingrímur J. Sigfússon is the bill’s proponent and told RÚV that the legislation would put MPs on equal footing with other candidates for a parliamentary election.

During the six-week period before elections, Parliament won’t reimburse MPs for travel, although they will continue to pay for travel categorised as a parliamentary business. Additionally, if Parliament is still in session, travel to and from parliament can qualify for reimbursement. Speaker of Alþingi Steingrímur J. Sigfússon states that the bill will ensure that once electoral campaigns get into full swing, MPs will travel at their own expense and will be on equal footing with other candidates. “We believe this is a matter of fairness. The bill is the final touch to the work we’ve been doing to increase access to information and tighten regulation,” Steingrímur stated. He added that in the past few months, they’ve gone over data such as travel occasions, and on which occasions it would be more economic for MPs to use rental cars instead of receiving reimbursements for driving their own cars. When asked if the same rules applied to Ministers, Steingrímur stated that the Government handled regulation for Ministers’ travel reimbursement but that the ministries had confirmed that they would be implementing the same restrictions on Ministers’ travel reimbursements.

Kjarninn reports that data shows Parliament’s expenses for travel reimbursement increased around the past three elections, indicating that parliament was partially funding MP electoral campaigns.

MP travel reimbursement has been heavily debated in the past few years, ever since 2018 when the Speaker of Alþingi revealed reimbursement amounts in an answer to a question by Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson. The numbers revealed that the top four MPs received just under half of the entire travel reimbursement budget. It was later revealed that Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson claimed to have driven 47,644 km for work in 2017 alone, for which he was reimbursed 4.6 million ISK. Since then, all information on MP reimbursement is published monthly.

 

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides: Government Assesses Damage and Promises Assistance

Four ministers will travel to Seyðisfjörður on Tuesday to assess the damage caused by recent mudslides. First, they will be tested for COVID-19. Politicians’ response to the calamities in the town has been swift and unanimous: “Of course we will rebuild.” While the extent of the support is yet to be decided, locals have discussed the lack of landslide protection in the mountains above Seyðisfjörður.

Prime Minister States Government’s Role in Emergency is Threefold

“The whole nation is upset over the news,” stated Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir in an interview for the RÚV nightly news. “It’s close to a miracle if no one gets hurt in this disaster. But of course, we all stand with the people of Seyðisfjörður and have them in our thoughts.” According to Katrín, the role of the government in a natural catastrophe such as this is threefold. First of all, the government needs to secure emergency aid and make sure the situation is being handled. Search and Rescue teams, the Red Cross, and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Response are key elements of this response.

Secondly, the government needs to assess the damage to prepare for longterm action, and third of all, they need to secure protection against a similar catastrophe in the long run. “Mudslides aren’t new in Seyðisfjörður but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen catastrophe such as this in the area,” Katrín told mbl.is. “In the long run, it’s important to do something about protection in the mountain and that’s something for which we need to lay down the lines.”

Katrín said that as so often before, when catastrophe strikes, Icelanders stick together as one. “It touches you deeply to see solidarity and how people help each other out. It’s an incredibly tough situation for people to be in, far from their hometown, so our thoughts are with people far from their homes and in this state of uncertainty. so it’s heartening to see the solidarity and cooperation over there.”

When asked about the government’s response, Katrín stated: “As of yet, the extent of the damage is uncertain, but it’s clear that it’s significant. It’s also clear that landslide protections need to be looked at. We’ve already set up an inter-ministerial workgroup that will go over that. But we will have to do more than that and we’ve already started on that work.”

Damage Could Amount to ISK 1 Billion

 The Iceland Natural Catastrophe Insurance CEO Hulda Ragnheiður Árnadóttir estimates that the damage amounts to a billion ISK ($7,774,236, €6,363,347), with ten or twelve buildings destroyed, RÚV reports.

The Iceland Natural Catastrophe Insurance insures real estate and fire insured furnishings for damage from volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, and floods. Their staff was in Seyðisfjörður last Friday before the largest landslide occurred. According to Hulda Ragnheiður, they did not like what they saw then and the outlook is even bleaker after the subsequent landslide. With 10-12 houses destroyed, and minor and major damage to other buildings in town, her first estimate is around a billion ISK. All real estate is insured for the assessed value for fire insurance above a 400,000 ISK deductible. Furnishings are insured if people have taken out fire insurance.

The people of Seyðisfjörður have restored many historical buildings. Hulda states that the restoration value will be reflected in the insurance amounts if people have requested an evaluation of the fire insurance assessment but does not have further information on how well the Seyðisfjörður buildings were insured. She encourages people to report damages as soon as possible, either online or by telephone.

“We don’t know it the area is fit for reconstruction, it is yet to receive a risk assessment. It remains to be seen if people will be allowed to rebuild their houses where they stood. It can be a little complicated,” Hulda told RÚV.

Cultural Heritage Destroyed

While personal damage might be costly, it’s not just monetary damage, but cultural as well. Seyðisfjörður was a historic town and some of the houses destroyed by the landslides were more than a century old. Among the buildings lost was the coutnry’s first sjoppa (local kiosk), a recently renovated ship-building centre and the Technical Museum of East Iceland.

What was most special about these old buildings was the uninterrupted street façade which is now gone. “a whole chunk of the oldest part of Seyðisfjörður is lost. It was the origin of this town, the place where the Norwegian entrepreneurs settled.” Architect Þóra Guðmundsdóttir, author of a book on historical houses in Seyðisfjörður. “The buildings were a part of our national heritage. These are cultural treasures that belonged to all of us.”

Out of the Technical Museum’s four buildings, only one looks like it could be rebuilt, rúv reports. The late-19th-century ship-building centre was a part of its buildings, recently renovated but is now completely gone. The museum’s director Zuhaitz Akizu Gardoki hopes that a fire-safe cabinet containing 8,000 photos documenting the history of Seyðisfjörður from the beginning of the 20th century might be recovered. He’s still uncertain of the next steps as they have yet to assess the extent of the damage.

Government to Travel East After COVID-19 Test

Four ministers will travel east on Tuesday to meet the people of Seyðisfjörður and assess the situation, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson and Minister of Justice and Civil Protection Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir. The trip was originally scheduled for Monday but after talking with local government who have their hands full with the emergency response, a decision was made to postpone the trip. According to the Assistant to the Prime Minister Lísa Kristjánsdóttir, the trip is planned in cooperation with Seyðisfjörður locals. Before the trip, the four ministers will be tested for Covid-19, as is everyone who travels to Seyðisfjörður these days.

No COVID-19 infection have been detected in east Iceland for the past weeks and everyone travelling east to help will be tested for the virus. In an emergency, personal infection prevention regulations are hard to keep up but Chief Epidemiologist þórólfur GUðnason urges everyone to remain as careful as they can. “It’s evident that the situation that has arisen in Seyðisfjörður leads to infection prevention regulation being broken. It’s unavoidable in many cases but people have to take as much care as possible, Þórólfur told mbl.is.

President Sends His Regards

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson sent warm wishes to the people of Seyðisfjörður and Eskifjöðrður. He stated that the Search-and-rescue teams, the police and others involved with civil protection were controlling the efforts in a resolute and professional manner. “We’re all sticking together now, sending warm thgouths to our fellow Icelanders who have experienced great woes, offering the help that is of use, Guðni stated. “The rain will soon let up and clearing efforst will commence. then the rebuilding starts and in that too, we will also stick together.”

He also mentioned to RÚV that with fewer fireworks this New Year’s Eve, the Search and Rescue teams were losing their means of funding. “I encourage everyone able, to support the Search and Rescue teams and others we rely on, the Red Cross and others so that those who are ready to be on the scene and help at a fateful hour feel the gratitude and receive the help they need to be able to perform this dire duty in our community,” Guðni stated. He added that “I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of the people of Seyðisfjörður and I look forward to going east at the earliest possibility and experience in this beautiful place the power of the people there. I think most Icelanders will agree that Seyðisfjörður is a beautiful, powerful place and a beautiful and powerful society will continue to blossom there.

More Avalanche Guards but Not Enough Landslide Protection?

Following the avalanches in Flateyri and Suðureyri last January, a decision was made to hasten avalanche protections in the whole country, with 47 tasks. 27 of them are already completed and 35 are to be completed by 2025. All should be completed in 2030. The main focus is on avalanche guards. When asked, Katrín replied that the mudslides would not occasion a change in the policy. We have our plan in the government about avalanche protections and that will remain our priority as those are the most fatal catastrophes that happen.” she stated. Landslide guards will also be considered.

Minister for Local Governmetn Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson stated that the government would support the people of Seyðisfjörður. “These are calamitous events and it’s a miracle that every life was saved. But there’s been great damage to property and it’s much too early to start discussing figures. Now, local government, civil protection and real estate owners need to go over how things are and the government will back them up. Of course, infrastructure in Seyðisfjörður will need to be rebuilt and the government will support the reconstruction. Sigurður Ingi agrees that landslide protection will have to be added to the avalanche protection plans. “In the past year, we’ve sped plans for avalanche guards and we will need to look at landslide guards as well. The funding exists and I don’t think it will be a problem to fund this, Sigurður Ingi told RÚV. He concurred with the Prime minister that Seyðisfjröður would receive government support for the rebuild.

Asked what was the purpose of the trip, Sigurður stated that there’s a system in place to deal with natural disasters and insurances, but that there’s often damage that doesn’t fall under such a system and it’s traditional for the government or its representatives to visit the scene of a disaster for assessment. 

Parliament Sends Warm Regards and Fighting Spirit

During a busy last day at parliament before Christmas, the speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon sent their regards to east Iceland. In his final speech of the year, he stated: “The year wasn’t done with us yet, as I suspected. I half-expected Katla to erupt but it was a different force of nature that made itself known yesterday with devastating results for the people of Seyðisfjörður. Our thoughts are with the people of Seyðisfjörður, Eskifjörður, and everyone in the east. We send our fighting and solidarity regards from Iceland’s Parliament.

Parliament Operations Changed to Eliminate Filibusters

Steingrímur J. Sigfússon

Speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon introduced changes to parliament operations yesterday, intended to discourage filibusters, RÚV reports. Rebuttals won’t be allowed for repeated five-minute speeches and echoing, or rebuttals to speeches from members of the same party as the original orator will not be allowed. This is intended to discourage filibusters, following the record-breaking 150-hour filibuster in the discussion of the Adoption of the EU’s third energy package this spring.

Parliament will also last longer into the summer than before, based on earlier experience. The Speaker also requested that the Standing orders of Alþingi be reviewed and expects that a special committee will finish the review before the end of this term.

“Members of Parliament from the same party as the original orator will no longer be allowed to rebut or echo, unless special circumstances allow it, such as if it is clear that the members of parliament are on opposite sides of an issue or that votes will not fall along party lines,” Steingrímur stated in his first address to this parliamentary session.

This will make the form of rebuttals the same as it was in 1991 when Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament was made a unicameral legislature. At the beginning of the 21st century, changes were made to Alþingi’s standing orders, putting time restrictions on each speech in the second round of discussions but no restrictions were put on the number of speeches allowed. This meant that members of Parliament could make several shorter speeches instead of making long speeches and rebuttals could take longer than the original speeches. This will now be limited.

The discussion on the adoption of the EU’s third energy package into Icelandic law took an unprecedented 150 hours, with many meetings in parliament stretching into the wee hours of the morning as members of the Centre Party rebutted one another’s speeches over and over. The filibuster lead to a pile-up of issues, which had to wait to be processed. Speaker Steingrímur rebuked the Centre Party members at one point, saying Alþingi was in a sorry state of affairs and tried to appeal to their reasonableness, sense of responsibility and respect for the basic rules of parliamentary democracy. Centre Party Director Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has denied that the party’s takeover of the third energy package discussion was a filibuster, claiming that the discussion was topical.