Even though the position of social protection minister came at an inconvenient time for Kaia Iva, she felt it would no be right to turn it down, and she will have to accept the title of the Pro Patria Res Publica Union's (IRL) first female minister.*
Why do you believe you will make a good social protection minister? What are your strengths?
A minister is not just an expert in their field, she must also have political support and competency. I also value a connection to reality. I have these qualities – I've worked in a local government, social domain organizations; I have direct work experience as a mayor, faction chairman. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I'm bold enough to ask about the things I don't know.
I've been offered the regional minister's position twice in the past; I declined on both occasions, and I believe I did the right thing. It is good for a minister to have prior political work experience.
Eight years in the Riigikogu, followed by a year in a kindergarten. Which group has more capriciousness?
Members of the Riigikogu come from their own circles, sporting their own ideas sorting through which is more difficult. While you also have to compromise in a kindergarten, the final decision is up to the principal.
“Like a kindergarten” is an expression often used to refer to working teams, whereas my experience in terms of kindergarten life was limited. I became the deputy manager in a newly created institution – four kindergartens had been merged, the young principal went on maternity leave, and the parish was in trouble.
We had a strange situation where the Särevere kindergarten had moved to Türi, and because new premises had been constructed we had vacant places in all buildings, while maintaining them was hugely expensive. Following my initiative, we decided to close the Särevere building and open a class where it made sense. We saved a lot of money that way.
Was the major kindergarten reform in Türi left half-finished?
This position came at a poor time for myself, the kindergarten, and Türi parish. We had counted on me running the kindergarten until next fall. We had a lot of things planned and a good working pace. That said, the kindergarten has a good team. I believe they'll be just fine.
How removed were you from politics, really? You were deputy chairman of IRL after all?
Of course I kept myself up to speed and commented every once in a while; however, my work did not allow me to really concentrate on politics.
The thought of not returning to politics to escape all the uncertainty never crossed your mind? You got a painful experience from the previous elections: you broke your all time votes record at 1,684 but were still forced to stay out.
You can never be certain of anything in politics; however, it is not something one should over-dramatize. That's just the way it is.
I had offers, including in politics. As concerns the social protection portfolio, we discussed it six months ago after which Margus Tsahkna took office. The managing committee and the faction voted, and Margus emerged victorious. This time he proposed I take over.
One does not directly need a mandate from the people to serve as minister; however, I nevertheless have one. The other question is the search for a female minister in the party. To say that it is not a good time for me in that kind of a situation would not be proper.
Can I ask about the offers you turned down?
No (Laughs. - T. K.)
During a time IRL is not doing very well, perhaps you profited more by working at a kindergarten than the Riigikogu. Now you can be referred to as “a breath of fresh air” and someone who has done “actual work”.
I feel the year has been an interesting one and given me a different experience. The community also saw me as a person despite the fact I'm a politician – doing ordinary things and getting the job done.
The belief is that a politician points her finger and barks orders. That is not the case, at least not in Estonia. Political success requires you to handle practical things on your own, also in the Riigikogu. I've even cooked porridge for the children – not that it serves as a brilliant example of management.
Why does IRL have no history of women as ministers?
I suppose the opportunity never presented itself, because we've had a great number of female politicians fit for ministerial responsibility.
I see it as a general concern – not just in politics or regarding IRL – that one needs a certain support network to come into higher office. It depends on one's nature. I'm not a very extroverted person; rather I'm home and family-oriented. Collegial decisions tend to favor those whose social network is stronger.
Perhaps one needs to market oneself more?
Yes, it is important. The more people know about someone, the more likely they are to prefer that person. A tighter network of contacts also makes it harder for people to say: no, I will not support you.
Big things have been launched in your administrative area the results of which should manifest in the near future. January should see the next step of the capacity for work reform – the unemployment insurance fund will take over the incapacitated for work. A month from now you will have to take responsibility for everything going to plan. Are you ready?
I've been briefed on the bigger issues; we've gone through the fields: pensions, family benefits, various information systems. Naturally the minister takes responsibility; however, there are no serious risks on the horizon for the capacity for work reform; everything is going to plan. That said, the devil is in the details.
The other big thing is the social insurance board's new information system SKAIS2 that will manage all state pensions and benefits. The last piece of information was that finishing the system by January 1 is unrealistic and a new plan is needed.
The director of the board has assured me that the part of the system that concerns the unemployment insurance fund will be launched in January (exchange of data the fund needs to manage benefits – T. K.). While hiccups remain a possibility, additional staff is standing by.
We will review our timetable in the middle of January to determine the launch of the second stage that concerns family benefits and pensions. The old system will be used until that time.
Which parts of your administrative area have not been paid enough attention?
I cannot say one field has received disproportional attention. Personally, I would like to turn more attention to children and families. The former cannot speak for themselves. I would like to support parenthood. While that might sound simple, it really is not.
Society has changed, everything has become more complicated. Medical breakthroughs mean we now have more children who could not have survived in the past, children with special needs. The question is how to notice problems families are having as early on as possible.
The social ministry is working on some pilot projects – for example a parenthood program. We are about to launch the “Children's House” project that will offer children comprehensive aid instead of having them run from one agency to another.
As social protection minister, it is your job to protect minorities. At the same time you are against the registered partnership act.
Everything pertaining to medicine and equal rights has been moved under the health care and labor minister. The cohabitation act was unnecessary, it was possible to regulate these relationships based on other legislation.
Could we at one point have reached an act to regulate these matters in an integral fashion… Yes. However, you cannot base a law on a lie.
How to move on from here; people have certain expectations?
I would say that a shoddy piece of legislation has been drawn up, and it will be very difficult to repair it. I'm waiting for the authors of that mess to propose what comes next.
I'm sure your neighbor in the ministry, Minister of Health Care and Labor Jevgeni Ossinovski, sports a different view.
That's the beauty of coalition governments.
How much contact have you had with Ossinovski?
We have met in the Riigikogu and the ministry, but only briefly.
Will we see Tsahkna's pensions reform and proposal to tie the retirement age to life expectancy realized?
We will have to go over these things. There is a new participant in the coalition. However, we cannot turn all major changes upside down. Population figures are what they are, and solutions will come from specialists.
The reform currently exists in the form of a memorandum; however, demand for the reform does not come from politics but rather real life.
* Lagle Parek served as interior minister in Mart Laar's first government in 1992-1993 as a member of the Pro Patria Union's predecessor, the Estonian National Independence Party.