Gro Harlem Brundtland

Prime Minister 1981, 1986 - 1989 and 1990 - 1996

Gro Harlem Brundtland. Photo: Scanpix

Gro Harlem Brundtland has been physician, politician and Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

Councillor of State 6 September 1974-15 January 1976, Chief of the Ministry of the Environment.

Councillor of State 15 January 1976-8 October 1979, Chief of the Ministry of the Environment.

Prime Minister 4 February-14 October 1981.

Prime Minister 9 May 1986-16 October 1989.

Prime Minister 3 November 1990-25 October 1996.

Born in Bærum in the County of Akershus 20 April 1939, daughter of physician – later government minister - Gudmund Harlem (1917-1988) and executive officer Inga Brynolf (1918-).
Married 9 December 1960 to Arne Olav Brundtland (1936-), son of comprehensive school teacher Knut Brundtland (1898-1983) and Else Ragnhild Hoel (1902-1974).

Gro Harlem grew up in Oslo, and was less than a year old when Nazi Germany invaded Norway in April 1940. She spent her next five years partly with her parents in Oslo and partly with her mother’s family in Stockholm, Sweden.

In her primary school years at Ruseløkka in Oslo, Harlem joined the Labour Party’s children’s organisation, where Werna Gerhardsen – wife of Prime Minister and Labour chairman Einar Gerhardsen – was a leading figure. Another central person here was Rolf Hansen, later government minister. The two became important role models for her.

At comprehensive school at Hegdehaugen in Oslo Harlem was one of the founders of a socialist pupils’ association, and as a medical student at the University of Oslo she was active in the Socialist Students’ Association and later in the Labour Students’ Association. It thus caused some sensation when she in 1960 married Conservative Arne Olav Brundtland.

After her medical degree and subsequent internship as a physician in Oslo, Harlem Brundtland in 1965 achieved a masters’ degree in public health at Harvard University in the USA. She was appointed junior registrar at the Norwegian Health Directorate in 1966, and from 1969 consultant chief physician for school health services at Oslo’s board of public health.

Brundtland became involved in local politics at Bygdøy in Oslo, representing the Labour Party. When Minister of Social Affairs Sonja Ludvigsen was taken ill and died in 1974 and was succeeded by Minister of the Environment Tor Halvorsen, Prime Minister Trygve Bratteli wanted a young woman on the post. He picked Brundtland. When called to Bratteli’s office she expected he wanted her advice on a white paper being prepared to liberalise Norway’s abortion legislation.

Brundtland was appointed on 6 September 1974, and made environment policy central in Bratteli’s Second Government, and from 1976 also in Odvar Nordli’s Government. Important issues were the protection of the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, the start-up date for oil drilling off Central and North Norway, and the international struggle against acid rain. Her work during the unchecked blow-out at the Bravo oil drilling platform in the North Sea in the spring of 1977, made her known nationally as well as internationally.

There were two other women in the Government when Brundtland was appointed in 1974. In 1975, the UN Women’s Year, she became the first female deputy leader of the Norwegian Labour Party. She was elected Member of Storting in 1977, for the Labour Party in Oslo, but was granted leave of absence as she was member of the Government. For several years she had been active in a group of women working for reforms which would make it possible for young women to combine motherhood and work.

It came as an unpleasant surprise to Brundtland that Labour removed her from the Government after the party’s weak local elections in 1979, as it was considered necessary to let party leader Reiulf Steen join Nordli’s Government. At the Storting Brundtland now began her apprenticeship in the legislative part of the political system – as member of the Storting’s standing committee on finance and later as leader of the standing committee on foreign affairs.

Early in the election year of 1981 opinion polls indicated that Labour’s position as the largest party was under threat. Nordli’s Government had problems and the Prime Minister’s health was failing. On 29 January Arbeidernes Pressekontor (Labour Press Agency) wrote that Nordli would leave his office due to illness. The following day Brundtland participated at a meeting in former prime minister Trygve Bratteli’s home, to evaluate the situation. Nordli wanted Rolf Hansen - minister of the environment - as his successor, while Hansen and the others wanted Brundtland.

On 4 February Brundtland’s Government succeeded Nordli’s Government, with Brundtland as Norway’s first female prime minister – and also as the country’s youngest prime minister, not yet 42. Among the difficult issues on the agenda was the construction of a hydro-electric power plant near Alta in the County of Finnmark.

Brundtland had a strained relationship to Labour leader Reiulf Steen, and at the party congress at Hamar in April 1981 Steen refrained from running for a new period. Brundtland now became the Labour Party’s first female leader. Although the party’s support increased from 31 per cent in opinion polls in February 1981 to 37 per cent in the national elections in September that year, the elections led to the loss of Labour’s majority together with the Socialist Left Party. On 14 October 1981 the Brundtland Government was succeeded by Kåre Willoch’s Conservative Government. Brundtland now became leader of the opposition.

In 1980 Brundtland had become member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, chaired by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The commission’s report was presented in 1982. In the wake of the report Brundtland contributed to a unified Labour policy on how NATO could secure peace and promote east-west cooperation. This policy gained support also on the non-socialist side.

In December 1983 the UN secretary-general asked Brundtland to chair a World Commission on Environment and Development. She was here able to combine her experience as former minister of the environment with her morerecent experience in other fields of politics, and came to make strong impact on the commission’s work. The commission’s report, ”Our Common Future”, was presented in London in April 1987, after Brundtland had returned to the post of prime minister ten months earlier.

In the 1985 elections the Labour Party increased its support to 41 per cent of the votes, while Willoch’s coalition representing the Conservative Party, the Christian Democratic Party and the Centre Party lost its majority and became dependent of the right-wing Progress Party.

Early 1986 saw a drastic fall in oil prices, and Willoch’s Government now proposed a package of restrictive economic measures. Labour found the social profile insufficient, and decided to oppose the package. One proposals was to increase the price of petrol, which was also opposed by the Progress Party. Willoch demanded a vote of confidence on the issue, and the Storting majority voted against. On 9 May 1986 Brundtland’s Second Government was appointed.

Of the 18 members of Brundtland’s new government eight were women – the highest percentage in any government at any time until then. At Sakai girls’ school in Osaka, Japan, the Norwegian ”women’s government” had its own monument. However, it was a brutal economic reality the new Government had to face. During the year from 1985 to 1986 Norway’s foreign balance had gone from a 26-billion kroner surplus to a 30 billion kroner deficit.

Parallel to demanding tasks in Norway these years Brundtland was busy presenting the World Commission’s report internationally. She became internationally known and received a number of prizes for her work on the commission.

Brundtland’s Second Government was concerned with what might happen when the EU in late 1992 would establish its inner market, and was well under way with this study when the 1989 elections gave the Labour Party a setback to 34.3 per cent of the votes. The Conservatives, the Christian Democratic Party and the Centre Party were now in majority in the Storting. On 16 October 1989 Brundtland’s Government handed over the power to Jan P. Syse’s non-socialist Coalition Government.

After Syse’s Government in late 1990 had dissolved due to inner disagreement on negotiations with the EU, Brundtland’s Third Government took over on 3 November 1990. Efforts to make Norway and other EFTA countries part of the inner market of the EU were successful when the Storting adopted the EEA Treaty in 1992. At the same time EFTA countries like Sweden and Finland decided to apply for membership in the EU. An important reason for this was the new situation in Europe after the fall of Soviet communism and the dissolution of the Eastern bloc. This once more raised the issue of EU membership also for Norway.

After a process in the Labour Party, Brundtland in April 1992 said Norway should apply for EU membership. At the same time she decided to leave the post as Labour’s leader, as her youngest son had taken his own life. Labour’s secretary, Thorbjørn Jagland, now took over as party leader while Brundtland continued as prime minister.

In the Storting elections in 1993 the Labour Party increased its support to 36.9 per cent of the votes. The Centre Party came second, after having mobilised the opposition against Norwegian membership in the EU. Brundtland and Centre Party leader Anne Enger Lahnstein now emerged as the main adversaries in the period up to the referendum on Norwegian EU membership on 29 November 1994. The outcome was a scarce majority against. Brundtland had made it clear that the Government would follow the people’s advice.

Brundtland’s position remained strong also after the defeat in the EU issue, but gradually the question was being raised as to how long she intended to remain prime minister. In October 1996, less than a year before the next national elections, she announced at short notice that she would tender her resignation. On 25 October Thorbjørn Jagland’s Labour Government took over.

Brundtland now declined re-election to the Storting in the 1997 elections, and said she would be willing to run for the post as director general of the World Health Organisation, based in Geneva. She was elected with solid majority, and took up the post in 1998. In the WHO she carried through major organisational changes, and stood out as a strong leader. When her period at the WHO was over in 2003, she retired – after some time to the family’s new home in the south of France.

Since then Brundtland has i.a. been Health Policy Fellow at Harvard University, member of a UN high level panel on threats, challenges and change, a UN Special Envoy on climate change, and member of The Elders - a group of former leaders convened by Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu to contribute their wisdom, leadership and integrity to tackling world problems. 

i.a. Norsk Biografisk Leksikon