by Sam Richardson @SamRich91
If politics really is ‘show-business for ugly people’, it explains why political commentators seem to suffer from their own variant of celebrity-obsession. The glamorous image of power invariably does not indicate actual power in Denmark, as the fraught leadership of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has shown, tormented by her own party, the opposition and EU law. Rather the reverse: in a country that prizes modesty, many of the real decision-makers can be found in the shadows; politicians like Bent Hansen.
Not that Hansen is himself a particularly shadowy figure; a lifelong resident of Jutland, he returned to office after surviving bowel cancer, personally winning 104,064 votes in last year’s local elections – far more than Aarhus’ high-profile Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard. It’s Hansen’s job which is a matter of mystery. Everyone knows their local Mayor, but Region Midtjylland (central Jutland), of which Hansen is chairman, located far out in Viborg, is the subject of considerable ignorance. One DR study suggested one third of Danes want the regions abolished because they were unnecessary. So during one of his visits to Aarhus, I took the opportunity to ask Hansen what exactly he does for a living.
“First of all, it is healthcare…doctors, hospitals and everything involving helping ill people who need help.” The regions were set in 2007 because it was believed that local counties, which they replaced, were too small and fragmented to deal with healthcare. Previously, County Mayor of Viborg, Hansen found himself in charge of Region Midtjylland, which comprises 1.2 million people, stretching from Ringkøbing on the west coast to Aarhus in the east. He is also head of the national association for Danish Regions. This has given Hansen more power over Danish healthcare than anyone else in the entire country, including the Prime Minister. And, as he points out “If there’s something people are interested in, it is healthcare. You won’t meet Danes who don’t have discussion or experience with healthcare”.
That said, it’s equally difficult to find Danes who understand the challenges facing an ageing nation. Hansen is tasked with ruthlessly shutting down local hospitals and merging them into huge hospitals, like that currently being built in Skejby in Aarhus. The number of hospital beds has fallen from 25,000 in 1996 to 18,000 in 2009. The challenge, Hansen argues, is Denmark’s success in keeping people alive: “in the last five years, as an example, [people] will live …on average two years longer. But when we get older we have more diseases; we have more chronic diseases, we can get cancer. Private organisations within healthcare in Denmark have predicted that within the next ten years the number of persons who get cancer will grow by 50%”.
That’s a problem, Hansen explains, because modern treatments for cancer cost 0.5-1 million kronor – for a single patient. “We will have a strong pressure on [our] economy and [over] the next two years I’ll be in Copenhagen, and having discussions with our Minister of Finance, to discuss how we pay for this success.” Denmark is the fourth biggest proportional spender on healthcare in the European Union; healthcare consumes 11% of its GDP. Whilst prescription drugs involve charges, healthcare remains free at the point of service and that isn’t likely to change, Hansen believes. So I ask him: can Denmark really afford the level of healthcare it wants? “We will find solutions”, he replies grimly.
Region Midtjylland is also responsible for regional development. Aarhus and east Jutland forms the second-biggest urban area in Denmark after Copenhagen, but in the west depopulation is a huge problem as young people move away. “We try to make systems”, Hansen explain “that less successful areas then here in Aarhus will benefit from”. That extends from the very basic initiatives, such as improving mobile coverage in rural areas, to helping manage the distribution of EU development funds. Hansen’s job is also to promote the whole region to potential foreign investment: “we try to focus on cooperation with international big firms who are locating to the northern part of Europe, to make our region interesting to these types of private investment”.
Birth, death and taxes (or at least spending them); Hansen speaks convincingly if dispassionately about why he thinks Danes should care about regions like his. But it’s less clear what drives him personally. That’s until the subject of the national government in Copenhagen is raised. “If you don’t have the regions”, he argues, “you will have problems because you will have to wait for what Copenhagen thinks needs to be done in our region. And we will not wait for that. We will take our own decisions, because then you have competition between the regions, which push them all up, instead of waiting for what they think in Copenhagen.” What makes this even more revealing is that Hansen happens to be part of the same party which currently leads the national government, the Social Democrats.
“The populations do know the regions are there” reiterates Hansen, as our meeting draws to a close. Hansen is certainly commanding increasing prominence; both with his overwhelming election victory and opinion pieces in various national newspapers. But given that he is amongst the most powerful politicians in the country – better paid then the Prime Minister and with far more influence over healthcare – that is the least you’d expect. Indeed public ignorance about Hansen’s job, and of what the regions do, is a damning and potentially undemocratic failure of Denmark’s political system. Hansen, however, believes that gap is being bridged: “it had been difficult, years ago, to create interest about the regions. But we’re going up now, it’s been better at this election. So I’m optimistic.”
Sam Richardson is a journalism student and freelancer, and Society Editor of Jutland Station. He’s worked at the BBC, The Times, Daily Telegraph and Islington Gazette newspapers, and studied History at Oxford University. You can see his portfolio here: http://flip.it/CNH5t