Maria Ohisalo, a new Green leader who wants to end poverty in Finland

MariaMaria Ohisalo belongs to this very small group of promising  green politicians  who are going to replace progressively the founding generation of  the Greens in Finland. She is preparing her PHD in sociology  on food aid (bread queues) and poverty in Finland, is a sportswoman (skating, athletics, French kick-boxing, soccer) and is collecting old computer games.

But she is also been very active in other fields: she was elected  Deputy Member of the City Council and of Helsinki Parish Council,  she is a board member of HUS – The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa – a joint authority formed by 24 municipalities, a member of Helsinki,  and a Member of the Council of the Social Science Professionals (Labour Market Organisation).

Before that, she was the Chairperson of the International Affairs Working Group of ViNO – Green youth and student in Finland in 2011and then co-chaired ViNO together in 2013 and 2014. Outside the political field, she acted as the Chairperson in the Youth Working Group of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs that reflected the Future of the Nordic Cooperation in 2012, and she has been Board Member of the Youth League of the Finnish Norden Association in 2012.

She is a promising candidate for the Parliamentary elections in April.

Where are you from?

I am from Helsinki, and I am more precisely from the Eastern part of Helsinki. I was raised in different suburbs of Helsinki, Herttoniemi, Mellunmäki, Vuosaari and I have been moving a lot around Helsinki. I have also been living in Sweden for a couple of years, then a semester in France.

How did you come into politics?

These days, when I have just turned 30, I have been thinking a lot about the past. I have come to realise that there are many reasons that are affecting my involvement in politics. I was born in 1985, and when I was beginning to go to school at 7, the greatest recession of the last 50 years hit Finland, I saw unemployment and scarcity in my family’s life. I have seen that the welfare state is there to safeguard us all and that welfare state I want to defend as a politician.

Seven years ago I was looking for a party. I went through different political parties programmes, and it was clear that the Greens were closest to me. Then there were the elections, my mother told me about the election machines, so I used them. Again, it was a Green candidate who came first and I voted for her. The Greens was a party that combined social justice with ecological sustainability. This feeling got stronger when I moved to Sweden to study political science. There in Uppsala, were students from all over the world. The political discussions we had made me realise that I want to become more involved in everyday politics and be part of the Green movement. So when I came back to Finland I was sure that I needed to join the party, because I wanted to do more for Finland, and the world, not just follow politics from TV.

What is the most important topic for you in politics?

My main goal? It is to stop poverty, as the slogan goes in my election campaign. I feel that as long as people don’t have food, as long as they don’t have shelters, they cannot really participate in the society, they are not able to help people in the world, they cannot be involved in fighting the climate change etc. If the basic needs are not met, you have to address them, begin with poverty reduction in politics, and it is what I am aiming for. Poverty costs not only lives but also money and we cannot afford to leave parts of the society outside.

That is probably also why it is an important part of my research themes. I am privileged to work against poverty both through my research and through politics.

What is your research about?

I am doing my PHD on charity food aid (or bread lines) in Finland, and we have been interviewing 3 500 people who go to food aid regularly. It is one of these places where even if you know that Finland and the Finns are doing better than ever before, you discover that at the same time there is an accumulation of deprivation and ill-being in parts of the society. People going to work, who have a family and a home, do not even know the smallest thing about the hard existence of these people who are almost unable to survive. Bread lines are one of these places where you discover it, and I want to do my share on helping these people and doing something to this phenomenon, through the projects of our research group.

What should we do more if we want to limit these bread lines?

There are actually at the same time two main reasons for that. The first side is the socio-political side we are looking at.

The main reason are social reasons, such as the lack of money in general, the fact that  people have no job, or just a part-time job, which is barely sufficient to survive. And then the security net is not functioning, which is a socio-political problem: they don’t get the financial support and subsidies they are entitled to, as the system has become too wide and too vague, and very hard to understand. Add to the picture that these people are not doing too well, they are often depressed, hungry, and lonely, so they don’t have the energy and the power to find the solutions and the help that they would need.

So I feel definitely that the social security system should be rethought, and there is one thing I am pushing forward in politics: I support the idea of replacing the complex system of allocations with a basic income (an unconditional allocation available for all), and we should try it. Some people support it, some reject it: for example, Heikki Hiilamo (a professor of social policy) at the University of Helsinki is pushing for it, and then Juho Saari (professor at the University of East Finland) says no to it, even if they generally agree on a number of topics and have done a lot of research together. So I think that the only solution is to stop discussing and try it, as it would benefit a lot of people and simplify our administrative system. That should be written down in the next government programme. It has to be noted that other parties, such as the Centre Party (Keskusta) and the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto) have been supporting the idea, so there is a possibility for that.

We have to certainly address the social or health reasons that put people in this situation. People do not suddenly arrive in the bread lines voluntarily, because there is free food there: for 90 % of the people, our studies show that they would not cope without it, it is vital for them and their wellbeing. Supporting the persons who have lost their work, preventing drug and alcohol problems, providing support to people with depression and other psychological difficulties, addressing the poverty risk of those million people living by themselves, which is one main themes of my campaign, all these actions are necessary.

Then there is the issue of surplus food we have all the time. We the Finns are throwing away hundreds of millions of kilos of food every year and that is keeping this breadline system functioning: stores are giving their food to charity organisations, so the system just stays alive. At the same time, on the social political side, politicians do not have the incentive to make it better for these people, because they can rely on this system, they consider that the food will be enough and then there is no reason in their view to go to the roots of the problems, which are social.

What kind of other challenges are there for Finland in the next years?

Of course, the climate change is the biggest problem that humanity should be worrying about, and there will be in Paris at the end of the year the negotiations on climate where hopefully the first real international climate agreement will be signed. We will probably go there with a group of young Greens and other people active in the field in Finland.

So how to get that climate matter addressed, and what can Finland do about it? Even in Helsinki at municipal level, we can decide if we need to build new energy plants and if we will use only coal, or 50 % coal, or no coal at all. And there is actually a campaign for pushing Helsinki to become totally coal-free, and that is also the aim of the Greens for whole Finland: Finland should become coal-free by 2050.

At the same time, we have a difficult situation economically. So we have to address at the same time poverty, the climate change, and the economic situation, and many people think that they are not compatible, that we cannot deal with all of them, and that if we want to have growth, we cannot take care of the environment, we cannot deal with poverty. But for us, Greens, we can generate Green growth with green jobs for example to develop renewable energy, and in services in general. Germany is the example of the success of this strategy, they are practically the world leader in the domain, and they are not so bad economically. So these three topics go hand in hand.

When you will be in the Parliament, what is the first law you would like to see on your desk for adoption?
This government has not been able to achieve a lot, and in particular the reform of the social and health care sector has not gone through. It will be left to the next government and Parliament, and I think that renewing our present system is one of the most vital reforms we need, because the health and social inequalities in Finland are actually growing at a worrying speed. The persons with the lowest income level and the lowest educational level can die 13 years before the ones with a different income and education! Bridging this gap was one of the objectives of the reform (SOTE-uudistus in Finnish), but it was at the same time about finances, as we can save money if we take care of people before their situation is so bad that it costs a lot to just support them. So that would be for me the first law to adopt.

What is your opinion about the Greek crisis?

It is quite easy to just say without thinking that they must pay back their debts as planned, in particular if you reason from a purely nationalistic point of view. But if you look from a European point of view at what happened in Greece when the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank put these austerity measures, they cut the basic social and health services, and it was the worst place to cut: when you do it, the situation of the people is becoming so bad that they cannot work and produce any more, and then who can pay taxes, where do you gain the growth that will allow you to pay back your debts? It does not matter if you create jobs if you don’t have the people to take them! So personally I think that we should at least accept that they pay their debts on a longer period, to make it a bit easier for the basic Greek people and not destroy their last social and health services.

There is an interesting point: in our research, we gathered the basic data from Greece, and we are going to make an article that is comparing the situation of people going to bread lines in Greece, in Finland and then in Lithuania, so a post-communist transition country versus a Nordic welfare state versus a Mediterranean at the time of the crisis. It is going to be interesting.

Are you afraid of the situation in Russia and Ukraine?

Of course we have seen that again Russia has again this superpower thinking. I am not personally afraid of this situation, because I think that Russia has too much to lose by attacking one of the EU countries.

But of course I think that EU should do more about the present crisis. In particular, concerning the sanctions, I consider that Finland has to be more involved and that we should consider more sanctions later on. We have to show that it is not OK to attack a sovereign country, it is against international law and agreements.

Then as a neighbouring country to Russia, we have a special role to play, as we have specific communication channels to Russia, and we could use that somehow, even if we should let the main actions in the hands of the EU.

Concerning NATO, I would say no to it in principle, but of course before saying no or yes I would like to see people voting on it, we should have a national referendum and let people should decide. But we have to know that joining NATO would change the way we are perceived in other countries. I have spoken with people in the trade sector, and they say that now, when you say you come from Finland, this Nordic area not linked to great power, they understand that we are independent, not bowing to the USA or Russia, and that is a positive message. If we join NATO, it is so much linked to the USA that people will look at us differently, and there may be some risks involved, including for our trade.

Of course we should cooperate with the other EU countries, and even if a number of them are already NATO members, I don’t see a problem with it. The military Nordic cooperation functions well, and we should stick with that. Would Russia attack Finland, I am convinced many other countries would be here to support us, in particular all the European countries: it is required by the Lisbon Treaty, which includes both a mutual assistance and a solidarity clause. It is true that nothing similar has ever happened, we have never tested this solidarity…

What is your feeling concerning the results and the consequences of the election?

I think that in politics, you should always aim for the government, as it is the place where you really influence. The Greens have been sitting in a government for quite a long time, seven years, to defend our politics and our ideology. We have been able to influence, but our ideology hasn’t always been showing in the compromises that government has done.

However I think it would be useful to be in the government, if we can find a common agenda with whatever parties are winning the elections. If we can find common ideas to put in a government programme with others, either the parties we have already been in a coalition with, or even in some cases with the Finns Party, let us do it! It would be hard to just let go, sit in the opposition and see as spectators how they are tearing down our welfare state, for example! It would be very difficult, and it has been very difficult already with the National Coalition Party!

We can certainly work with the Social Democrats, the Left Alliance… We could imagine a “puna-multa” alliance (Red Earth, for Social Democrats and Centre Party) in which we could be integrated.

I think that the Greens are going to get more seats in the Parliament, we only have 10 now, because we lost five last time, and we should get them back! In the next weeks we are going to show our themes and our ideas, and that should convince voters to have confidence in our capacity to face the present challenges with a green growth!

Categories: Elections, Environment, Social

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