Lost in translation

Malta's fifth referendum, to be held on 11 April, will mark the first instance of a referendum held to abrogate, or annul, a law

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The confusion surrounding the question for April’s referendum on spring hunting seems to indicate how unaccustomed we are as a country to the concept of direct democracy. 

Malta has had only four referenda in the past 60 years: on Integration (1955), Independence (1963), European Union accession (2003) and divorce (2011). The fifth, to be held on 11 April, will mark the first instance of a referendum held to abrogate, or annul, a law: held on the basis of the Abrogative Referendum Act which came into force in 1994.

There is therefore a significant difference between this year’s referendum and its predecessors. With the exception of divorce, all such democratic exercises in the past were conducted by governments to elicit approval or rejection of a government proposal. The divorce referendum was exceptional in that it came about (indirectly) as a result of a private member’s bill in parliament, and was opposed by the government of the day. But it still required an MP to be instigated, and (being a consultative referendum) also required an Act of Parliament to consolidate its effect.

The spring hunting referendum is an altogether different breed of animal. It requires no input from the political sphere, because unlike the others its results are automatically binding at law. Nor was it held at the behest of any political party: on the contrary, it was demanded by the people – through a Constitutionally-mandated petition – precisely to take away a decision from the ruling class and place it directly in the hands of the electorate.

On many levels this marks a historic first for Malta: the first time the people are to be given a chance to decide for themselves on an issue that has so far been determined exclusively by politicians; the first time a referendum has been precipitated by a popular movement rather than by a government or opposition policy; in brief, the first true instance of direct democracy in our country’s history since independence, and even before.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that such an unusual event would reveal gaping holes in our country’s legislation governing such referenda. In the end, thanks to a mistake in translation in the Maltese section of the law, the public will now be called upon to retain, rather than remove a law. This makes the spring hunting referendum original in another sense. It will probably be the only abrogative referendum in history that doesn’t actually ask for an abrogation. 

Still, the effects will remain the same. And on paper at least, the flawed question also makes sense. Voters will now be asked for a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to spring hunting. Those who wish to see an end to this practice will have to mark the ‘No’ box, where until Monday they expected to vote with a ‘Yes’. Will this change of gameplay give rise to confusion? Possibly… though it is highly unlikely (as some have suggested) that this was the result of any previously planned ‘strategy’ to undermine the referendum. It makes more sense to look at it as a case of teething problems, as a country experiments with direct democracy for the first time.

Let us therefore hope that the result of this referendum will not likewise be ‘lost in translation’.

This event is historical for other reasons, too. As our readers will be aware, this newspaper joined forces with The Times and The Independent to campaign for an end to spring hunting in Malta: which now entails a ‘No’ vote in the coming referendum. 

It was the first time a representative section of the independent press came together for a common editorial front on a single issue… and this alone attests to the seriousness of the matter at stake, which goes far beyond the conservation argument.

From an ecological perspective, hunting during the breeding season is a cruel and unsustainable practice, which targets the most genetically important specimens (the ones which have survived the winter migration), and thereby undermines the species as a whole. In Malta, spring hunting has demonstrably decimated the breeding bird population: as can be attested by renewed attempts to breed that are often brutally interrupted by gunfire.

But this is only a part of public concern. Over the years we have also seen the hunting lobby exert considerable influence over political parties, often through intimidating methods such as unruly protests resulting in violent attacks… of the kind we saw in 2007 and more recently 2014. The political class has consistently caved in to such pressure, and this has placed the issue of spring hunting beyond the reach of party politics. A referendum now marks the only hope of bringing this issue to closure once and for all.

Naturally, all parties are free to express their own opinion, and to campaign for whatever result they wish. That includes the hunters and their respective associations, the political parties and also conservation NGOs. For the sake of Malta’s much-abused environment, for the benefit of the heritage we leave to coming generations, and for the need for a decision to be taken after the political class has failed us, MaltaToday urges a ‘No’ to spring hunting on 11 April.  

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