From priest politicians to spring hunting: Malta’s six referenda

The referendum on spring hunting is the sixth national referendum to be held, but the first in which the electorate’s say is final

*The Gozo Civic Council referendum of 1973 has been excluded since this was not a national referendum.

All previous referenda were consultative, in which voters were asked to express their opinion on issues which still had to be ratified by parliament or the colonial authorities.

But the spring hunting referendum was the first one in which voters have utilised a law introduced in 1996 which enables 10% of the electorate to invoke a referendum on whether to delete or retain a law.

Therefore the spring hunting referendum is the first to be invoked by the electorate and the first whose result will be enacted automatically without the need of ratification in parliament. This means that MPs will not be taking a vote on this issue in parliament, as happened after the approval of the divorce referendum.

The EU referendum was also consultative, to the extent that former PM Eddie Fenech Adami immediately called for a general election to seek a clear mandate for EU membership after the opposition failed to accept the result.

Moreover, while in the case of divorce the question put to voters was drafted and approved by parliament (following a motion tabled by the opposition and supported by two government backbenchers), in the case of spring hunting the question put to voters is the one chosen by 41,000 citizens who signed the petition.

Moreover this was the first referendum whose result will not be legally valid if less than 50% of registered voters turn out to vote.

A No for change

Still, the fact that the law had been left untested for nearly two decades did create some teething problems.

A deficiency in the law gave an unexpected twist to the spring hunting referendum.  While previously the proponents of change had led “yes” campaigns, in this case the proponents of change had to campaign on a “no” platform.

The referendum question on spring hunting which was put to voters was based on the Maltese version of the Referendum Act that the Constitutional Court had accepted, when it decided that Malta would go to the polls to decide on whether to make spring hunting illegal or not.

The fault lay with the legislators of the Maltese referendum law, whose translations are incorrect.

It turns out that the incorrect translation of the Referendum Act into Maltese contradicts the very definition of ‘abrogative referendum’ as laid down in the same law: while the petition for the referendum asked voters to vote on “whether to retain a law”, the definition of the abrogative referendum in the same law is to vote on “whether to remove a law”.

According to the Maltese version’s official petition that acts as a first step for an abrogative referendum, the question asks voters whether the law they want to remove “should be retained”.

However, the English version of the petition asks voters whether the laws they want to abrogate “should not continue in force”.

Since the Maltese language version of any law is deemed to be the final say, the attorney general advised the Prime Minister to ask voters whether the present law “should be retained.”

The first post colonial referendum?

Past referenda dealt either with Malta’s relationship with the rest of the world or with the role of the Catholic Church in Maltese society.  The spring hunting referendum is the first one to deal with an environmental issue, which is not directly linked to religious, or sovereignty issues. 

In this sense the spring hunting referendum belongs to a new era which post dates the EU referendum, which anchored Malta in the EU, and the divorce referendum, which set the boundaries between church and state. 

Although the referendum was made possible by the existence of an enabling law which puts in practice a self declared derogation from EU law which bans spring hunting, the referendum is an exercise of popular sovereignty which goes beyond EU membership. Interestingly in this referendum, church bodies like a group of influential Jesuits and Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna himself before becoming Archbishop, did speak clearly in favour of a No vote, but they did so as a strong voice in pluralistic civil society rather than as an organisation seeking to impose its values.

Malta’s six referenda

The first referendum organised in late nineteenth century Malta resulted in a plebiscite in favour of the participation of priests in the council of government.

The question put to the electorate was: ‘Are ecclesiastics to be eligible to the Council of Government?’ At the time only the landed gentry had the right to vote.

Religious passions reached a high point in the first post-war referendum on integration with Great Britain, a plan proposed by Mintoff to make Malta an integral part of Great Britain.

From a legal point of view the Yes vote carried the day, but the total of those voting against, those abstaining or invalidating their vote, the deceased, and the ‘non-voters’ exceeded the yes vote by almost 10 per cent.

The Nationalist Party boycotted the integration referendum, arguing that Integration would result in the dominance of Protestantism over Catholicism, leading to the introduction of civil marriage, divorce and birth control despite the fact that Mintoff had made it clear those local issues such as education and religion would be in the hands of the Maltese government. The church also asked its supporters to vote ‘no’ or abstain in the referendum, floating banners such as ‘Meta tivvota Alla jarak u jiggudikak’ (When you're in the polling booth God will watch you and will judge you).

The independence constitution approved in the referendum in 1964 also had the church’s blessing before it was submitted for popular approval.

In the 1964 referendum the electorate was called on to answer the question: “Do you approve of the constitution proposed by the Government of Malta, endorsed by the Legislative Assembly, and published in the Malta Gazette?”

The EU membership referendum was the first secular referendum in which the church stayed out of the fray. 

The results

All previous referenda resulted in the question being approved. But none received the approval of a majority of all the registered voters, because in all the other five cases a substantial number of voters did not vote.

The PN had formally called for a boycott of the integration referendum in 1956.  Although integration plans were approved by a majority of voters who cast their vote, the low turnout strengthened Britain’s resolve to turn down Mintoff’s plans.

In the 2003 referendum on EU membership Labour leader Alfred Sant called on voters “to abstain, vote against or invalidate their vote”.  In this way he was able to claim, “the partnership (Sant’s alternative to membership) had won.”

All referenda except for the one on divorce and the spring hunting referendum were organised by the government of the day.  The divorce referendum was the first one to be called after an opposition motion was approved in parliament while the spring hunting referendum was the first to be called by the electorate itself.