In a post I wrote last week I alluded to the growing anger in Icelandic society over the actions or non-actions of our current government. I also wondered whether the subservient mentality left over from our colonial days was causing Icelanders to simply take all the insults and injuries handed to them and shuffle on, serf-like, pretending nothing had happened.
Well, I am happy to say that in the interim there has been a rally for protests, and a demonstration will be held at 5 pm this afternoon in Austurvöllur square, in front of the parliament buildings. As I write this, 6,000 people have joined the event on Facebook, which is more than I recall any of the other demonstrations getting prior to the event.
In last week’s post I made a list of some of the reasons for this widespread public dissatisfaction, which I had to abandon halfway because the post had gone on for too long. I said I would add to it, so here, without further ado, is a continuation:
In its current budget proposal, the government claims it wants to “simplify” the VAT system. It proposes to do this by lowering the higher of two VAT brackets to 24% from 25.5% previously and to raise the lower tax bracket from 7% to 12%. That lower tax bracket covers essentials like food. In other words, the tax on many non-essentials goes down, while the tax on essentials goes up. At the same time the government proposes to do away with tariffs on higher-priced goods such as flat-screen TVs, which will decrease in price by 25%. Using some weird accounting logic that nobody understands, our rulers are adamant that this will increase the spending power of regular households.
As our fearless leaders raise VAT on food, they abolish a tax on sugar that the previous administration had implemented. Ergo: healthy foods like fruits and vegetables go up, unhealthy foods like soft drinks and candy go down.
Iceland is losing doctors at a rate of 66 per year. As this is written, doctors are on their first strike ever in the history of this country. The National Hospital and health care system are being consistently hollowed out from the inside. In the midst of this calamity it is announced that a private health care facility is on the drawing board in Kópavogur. Indeed, the trend has been all in this direction: systematically weaken or destroy public services, and then ride in on a white horse to the rescue with privatized “solutions”.
When our fearless leaders presented their new budget proposal, their calculations revealed that, in their view, a meal does not need to cost more than ISK 248. That does not even buy a cup of coffee in a downtown coffee shop. If we were made to subsist on ISK 744 per day [three meals daily] we would all be severely malnourished. But that does not seem to concern the leaders of this land, most of whom who have no idea what it is like to have to pinch and save. Their disregard for the working people of this country is astonishing, to say nothing of the elderly or disabled. “Let them eat cake,” etc.
About a week ago the government announced that it planned to scrap education departments for mature students throughout Iceland. In other words, adults over 25 who did not finish high school and want to do so can’t, unless they are prepared to pony up hefty fees for private education [last time I checked people who did not finish high school were not exactly rolling in dosh]. Again, we see the trend towards debilitated public services and privatized “solutions”.
Then there is the small matter of the leak. Several months ago, it came to light that the Ministry of Justice had leaked personal information about an asylum seeker to the media, evidently in order to justify their own decision to deport him. The story broke on the media outlet DV, which refused to let the matter drop, even though the ministry did everything to try and dismiss the matter as trivial hearsay. The minister and her assistants were later caught lying to the media, becoming ever-more enmeshed in their own web of deceit. Eventually a police investigation was launched, and the parliamentary ombudsman became involved. The minister was livid, and summoned the chief of police to her office. There, using intimidation and threats, she tried to meddle in the investigation, causing the chief of police, who was very popular with the public, to resign. Eventually the minister’s assistant was formally charged with breach of confidence in public office. I think it is safe to say that in any other democratic country, a minister whose closest assistant had been charged with a crime would have taken political responsibility and resigned. Not so in Iceland. Any suggestions to that effect have been met with arrogance and a “I did not do anything wrong so why should I resign” stance.
This week it came to light that the Chairman of the Board of the Financial Supervisory Authority had been involved in some pretty shady dealings when she worked for Íslandsbanki back in 2011. The bank brought charges against her when she left its employ. Despite this stellar track record, the Independence Party appointed her Chairman of the Board of the FSA last December – the very government body that is supposed to prevent the sorts of dealings that she, herself, was involved in.
A couple of weeks ago the company MS, Iceland’s largest dairy producer, was fined ISK 370 million for abusing its strong market position. And yeah, its market position is pretty strong, by virtue of it having had a monopoly on milk sales in Iceland for several decades. MS is exempt from competition laws, which is a political decision. Over the last ten years or so it has employed mafia-like tactics to bankrupt at least two small start-ups in the milk industry. This form of bullying by MS has gone on for decades against smaller companies to [successfully] force them out of business. Mind you, the current coalition parties cannot be held solely responsible for this, since it has been going on for longer than this election term. But this is the sort of Soviet-like climate that exists in certain pockets of this society, to help the rich get richer.
A couple of weeks ago it was revealed that 200 machine guns and pistols were purchased from Norway for regular police officers to keep in their patrol cars. Until now, Icelandic police officers have been unarmed, though there is a special squad trained to deal with crisis situations. Icelandic authorities dismissed the report as inaccurate, saying that the guns were a “gift” and that there were moreover 150 of them, not 200. The Norwegian Army later confirmed that 250 machine guns were sold to Iceland, at the behest of the Icelandic Coast Guard. No debate or discussion about this very radical change in policy for Icelandic law enforcement took place. One has to infer that the intention was to arm the police force in secret. Why? On top of this, it came to light a couple of days ago Coast Guard imported the weapons illegally, without the involvement of customs officials. Why? And why can’t Icelandic authorities tell the truth?
The media landscape in Iceland could easily be the subject of its own lengthy post. As we all know, a free and independent media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and corrupt powers in society repeatedly seek to have control of that same media. Of the three major newspapers in Iceland, two of them – Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið – are blatantly designed to serve the interests of their owners. The third, DV, was independent and did some investigative reporting until August of this year [see item 16, above]. Long story short, something like a hostile takeover took place, involving a well-known businessman here in Iceland whose shady dealings had been repeatedly exposed by the paper. There were others involved as well, who at the time were not revealed. Now, two months later, rumours abound that individuals with ties to the Progressive Party are those who took over paper; in any event it seems that it will soon be merged with other media affiliated with the PP.
~ That’s ten more added to my list, and I could go on – but this post has now gone on even longer than the first and I trust you get the picture. Remember Austurvöllur today at 5 GMT, and if you can’t get there, there is always webcam.
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[Photo EPA/SIGURDUR J. OLAFSSON]