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First local election panel focuses on family leave, social and health care reform

The looming social and health care administrative shake-up and parental leave were just a few of the contentious issues when leaders of Finland’s eight major political parties went toe-to-toe in Lahti on Saturday. The panel discussion was the first in a series leading up to the April 9 municipal elections.

Party leaders in Lahti (left to right): Left Alliance chair Li Andersson, Greens chair Ville Niinistö, SDP chair Antti Rinne, NCP chair Petteri Orpo, Centre Party chair Juha Sipilä, Finns Party parliamentary group chair Sampo Terho, Christian Democrat chair Sari Essayah and Swedish People’s Party chair Anna-Maja Henriksson. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Finland’s political party leaders met on Saturday for the first panel discussion ahead of the municipal elections.

A small but vocal group of protestors gathered outside the concert hall venue in Lahti. A few yelled "get rid of the government" to Prime Minister and Centre Party chair Juha Sipilä as he passed.

The other two parties in the coalition government were represented by Petteri Orpo, Finance Minister and chair of the centre-right National Coalition Party, and Sampo Terho, parliamentary group chair for the populist Finns Party, as Finns Party chair Timo Soini had a scheduling conflict.

The mood of the outside protestors may have influenced the opposition party leaders on hand, for Social Democratic Party chair Antti Rinne, Greens chair Ville Niinistö, Left Alliance leader Li Andersson, Christian Democrats chair Sari Essayah and Swedish People’s Party head Anna-Maja Henriksson were not afraid to take the reigning government to task.

About the past, not the future

Even though the day’s topic was the local elections, talk soon turned to the government’s past decisions.

The parental leave debate was revived, after having got its start on Thursday in Parliament.

The SDP, Greens, Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party demand a thorough overhaul of the family leave policy, to make it more flexible and encourage more women to work.

The Christian Democrats and the Finns Party both found themselves outside the coalition-opposition divide.

"The Finns Party considers the family a sacred institution," said the Finns Party’s Terho.

"Interfering with child care support is an ideological choice," said the Christian Democrat’s Essayah.

Prime Minister Sipilä repeated that he planned to take up the home care allowance problem in his government’s mid-term evaluations, at which time his coalition will take a closer look at Friday’s report from the working group on incentive traps.

"Freedom of choice" raises temperatures

But the day’s most heated debate centred on the proposed administrative reform of Finland’s system of social and health care services and the idea of introducing a “freedom of choice” component. The government says this new approach would put private and third-party health and social care options on equal footing with public services.

The opposition parties roasted the government coalition parties for what they perceived as shortcoming in the 1000-page draft of the bill. They said that the bill provided no means of understanding just how exactly the “freedom of choice” model would work. They also questioned the proposed model’s ability to serve all Finns equally, in both the big cities and the sparsely-populated countryside.

Opposition leaders said that small businesses would not have the resources to compete in service tendering processes and doubted that costs would remain at their current levels, even though one of the government’s key selling points is the promise that costs will not increase.

Prime Minister Sipilä pointed out several times that the thousand-page tome submitted to Parliament is a draft and the model is still being prepared.

What's the hurry?

The Swedish People’s Party chair Anna-Maja Henriksson reminded the premier that his government was just reprimanded by the parliament for its poor lawmaking practices, a performance Sipilä’s government has promised to improve. She also called for all of the reform’s bills to be introduced simultaneously, to get a better sense of the proposed changes in their entirety.

"The last piece of the puzzle is all that’s missing. Maybe we could start with the thousand pages at least?" Sipilä said.

The opposition leaders wondered why the government is in such a hurry to get the reform to Parliament before Midsummer.

"Well then, it’s a good thing we’ve got people on it," Sipilä replied.