Undermining democracy

The biggest problem by far concerns the broader implications of this new hunters' petition, should the government cave in to its outrageous demands. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

On Monday, representatives of the hunting lobby FKNK presented parliament with a petition they claim contains over 100,000 signatures to block a referendum on spring hunting.

Ominously, the petition was presented to parliament by Labour’s former deputy leader Michael Falzon, who is ironically also the parliamentary secretary responsible for MEPA, the entity tasked with protecting Malta’s biodiversity, among other environmental issues.

Falzon argues that 100,000 signatories “cannot be ignored”. The same could be said for his glaring conflict of interest in this case. The man politically responsible for Malta’s environmental agency cannot also be the man to politically represent the hunters’ lobby against the interests of the environmental cause to which he is supposed to be committed. By taking sides so openly in this case, Falzon has rendered his own position not only untenable, but – even worse – ridiculous.

Meanwhile, it transpires that the wording of the petition made no reference to spring hunting, but only to the vague concept of ‘defending minority rights’. Some of the signatories have complained that they were deceived into thinking they were supporting gay rights, or the traditional Maltese festa, or other unrelated issues.

Even without this consideration, the simple truth is that spring hunting – contrary to the hunters’ claims – is not a ‘right’ at all, but an ill-gotten concession that has no place in a civilised society that values its country’s biodiversity. Most countries ban hunting in spring because it allows for the destruction of wildlife at the most vulnerable stage of its life cycle.

By allowing the destruction of migratory birds during the critical breeding season, Malta’s anomalous situation can only result in the steady depletion of Malta’s wildlife. In fact the number of resident breeding birds has fallen dramatically since hunting grew to an unsustainably large pastime.

Besides, if hunters have a ‘right’ to shoot in spring, then fishermen should likewise have a ‘right’ to fish outside the established seasons, and without any consideration for the survival of the species they target. Hunting, like fishing, is regulated not only to protect biodiversity, but also to safeguard the future of the pastime itself from the short-term greed of its own practitioners.

Meanwhile there are urgent conservation reasons to discontinue spring hunting. The two targeted species, turtle dove and quail, are in sharp decline all over Europe, and it remains a fact that the local authorities have proved incapable of controlling illegal hunting of even more threatened (in some cases endangered) species.

The argument that autumn does not provide a suitable alternative to spring likewise does not hold water either. If Malta’s annual influx of turtle dove and quail are insufficient for hunters, this only means that there are too many hunters. Faced with this anomaly, the answer clearly cannot be to increase the opportunities for an excessive number of hunters to shoot a steadily dwindling number of birds. Yet that is precisely the consistent approach taken by successive Maltese governments for the past 30 years.

Another is the hunters’ petition concerns its claims to be a ‘minority’. If it turns out that the 100,000 signatories are all genuine – and already there is rampant evidence that this is not the case at all – then this makes the hunting community an outright majority, next to an abolitionist lobby that collected less than half that amount of signatures for its own petition. The hunters cannot claim to be a minority while at the same boasting that their lobby is the most powerful special interest group on the island.

There is also a contradiction between the hunters’ declared aim and their actual intentions. The petition for which they claim to have collected 100,000 signatures calls for a change in the law to preclude referendums on minority rights (even if, as already explained, spring hunting is not a ‘right’ to begin with). Yet FKNK officials have now called for a referendum to be held on a standalone basis, i.e. not to coincide with local council elections – suggesting that they themselves do not want to respect the terms of their own petition.

The fact that the hunters would prefer a one-off referendum also shows that they have made their own calculations, and understand that they cannot be expected to win if the turn-out is high. This makes nonsense of their claims of enjoying overwhelming national support.

But the biggest problem by far concerns the broader implications of the petition, should the government cave in to its outrageous demands. Any government that legislates to block or limit referendums will be directly undermining the core democratic principles by which it was itself elected to govern.

It would also seriously curtail the very real right (as opposed to the hunters’ imaginary ‘right’ to shoot in spring) of national populations to take decisions on matters where political parties have proved incapable of intervening.

That would constitute a giant step backwards for civil rights in this country. It is bad enough that a domineering special interest group has engineered a situation which seriously threatens Malta’s limited wildlife. That it should also weaken the structure of Malta’s democracy, in order to defend an ill-gotten privilege for which there is no legitimate justification, is simply unacceptable.

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