Why we need another referendum

In 2015 a country went to the polls in a referendum of sorts. That was five years ago, and in that referendum just over 70% of the Maltese voting population went to vote over whether one should shoot or not shoot a quail or a turtle dove in spring. 

It sounds surreal but it is true: they did get up and vote. 

Very few really undertsand why migratory wild birds on their way to their breeding grounds in Spring should not be kiled. Yet to many in 2015, it was an opportunity to protest. By a few hundred votes, the hunters’ lobby won the day... not without a lot of help from Joseph Muscat.  

But there was a very interesting message in the election outcome. A large section of the population had nearly managed to win over a decision that would have forced the government’s hand to change tack on spring hunting. 

Muscat was adamantly in favour of hunting; the PN under Simon Busuttil was ambiguous over hunting and that led many Nationalists to read into the message that they could vote with a free conscience. It is no secret that the vast majority who voted against hunting were of Nationalist leaning, but there were a good 30% who were not. They were Labourites or floating voters. 

Muscat’s unadulerated support for the hunter’s lobby at the height of his economic success won the day but only by a few hundred votes. Had he not intervened, by firing up the party machine for the lobby’s effort, the referendum would have been won by the environmentalist cause. 

Today the situation is very different. 

People have many qualms with government. The last three years has seen a government that tripped in its own feet, sacrificed economic growth for environmental degradation, allowed political intrigue with the Caruana Galizia assassintion to pollute the highest level of government, shocking the nation, and as documented regularly, privatisation deals ignored the basic tenets of procurement and decency together with countless other examples of bad governance. 

Yet in the face of all these political blunders, the ratings of the Labour government are high and the trust ratings of Robert Abela in particular are even higher than ever before. 

The reason is clear to all. PN leader Adrian Delia’s unelectability poses no real opposition or alternative to Labour. Compound this by the fact that Delia is politically limited, cannot see beyond one or two chess moves and continues to take stands that are neither here or there. He is also hijacked by his dissenters, some with reason and some with none. 

Which takes me back to 2015. Back then, Simon Busuttil, in one his rarer moments of political wisdom, played his cards right with the referendum on hunting. He said next to nothing and tried very hard not to appear too close with the hunting lobby. 

Adrian Delia has just done the opposite. On Friday evening he posted a Facebook comment saying he had met the hunter’s lobby and applauded them over their concerns that a BirdLife Malta complaint about the ‘illegal’ issuance of hunting licences was an affront on their rights as individuals. 

It was clearly Delia attempting to bend over backwards to a lobby that has for decades threatened politicians with their vote: a small vociferous posse of men who wield guns and shoot at the skies to kingdom come, representing the essence of what is problematic in Maltese society. 

The problem here is that if you can stamp your feet, and show your mettle, then you can get things your way – see what happened with the Maghtab farmers and landowners, and the quarry owners, the speculators and construction magnates and of course the hunters. 

As the hunters cried foul, the usual suspect came to their rescue – Gozo (and hunting) minister Clint Camilleri, a trapper who like most of his comrades, thinks that birds are tokens to be kept in a cage or stuffed; Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba (who took his wife’s surname for his double-barrelled last name before the last EP election in a bid to suck up the donkey vote), who is clearly comfortable in a right-wing party than the European socialists; and of course, the erstwhile minister of Flopchain, Silvio Schembri, the economy minister who boasted on Facebook of eating a Song Thrush stew. And now there’s Adrian Delia, who thinks that he can please everyone with his platitudes. 

The Opposition leader listened to the hunter’s representatives (the same ones who have led the organisation for the last 30 years) last Friday, listened to the same litany of ‘tired’ accusations, reminding him that 20 years ago I negotiated the hunting directives for Malta’s EU accession... and it followed that I was of course a traitor. 

The truth is that we are now in 2020. Malta is a different country, with an economy that could go anywhere, an environment facing rapid degradation at an alarming rate, a construction lobby that calls the shots, an opposition in turmoil, a government unwilling to see into the future and a general public that is crying out for change and radical action but has no one to lead them. 

That is why we need another referendum, one that will only address spring hunting – but in reality, that captures our anger about planning policies and other pressing issues. 

*** 

This week’s interview with Prime Minister Robert Abela on XTRA, reconfirmed some policy positions and perceptions that I feel are important to note. 

First and foremost, the PM confused environmentalism with being “populist” and standing by the construction industry as not being populist. 

Secondly, the government will pursue the IIP citizenship programme anyhow. Thirdly that the PM is not too hot on changing planning policies. Fourthly, Abela will save migrants in distress in the SAR sector for Malta, but ports will remain closed. 

Fifth, he does not consider the outcry of Maltese on migrants to be xenophobic and he understands their apprehensions. Sixth: there will be relaxation of COVID-19 measures but it is unclear what they will be. Seventh: he believes in the media, proof of this is the aid package to the media (albeit far too small to save all the industry). 

I would of course have loved to ask him about hunting but that is a problem for me on State TV due to my declared involvement with Birdlife Malta. I trust there will another time. 

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