[WATCH] Referendum on 11 April, Muscat to support spring hunting derogation

Referendum date set exactly just before start of the spring hunting season • PN says Prime Minister chose a date which suits his political exigency

An abrogative referendum on spring hunting is to be held on 11 April, just before the opening of the scheduled spring hunting season for this year, simultaneously with the local council elections in parts of Malta.

But while the question of setting a date has now been settled, the issue remains as to the question that the electorate will be presented with in the referendum, in view of the conflicting English and Maltese texts of the question submitted by the Coalition Against Spring Hunting (CASH) for the petition that was signed by over 40,000 people.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling is based on the Maltese version that asks whether “the following provision of the law, that is to say Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtledove and Quail Regulations should remain in place”.

The English version asks whether “the following provision of the law, that is to say Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtledove and Quail Regulations should not continue in force”.

Addressing a news conference at Auberge de Castille, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said a legal process was underway to determine the question. Pointing out that CASH activists were photographed holding ‘Yes’ signs, he said that the question in Maltese implies that a ‘No’ answer should be given if one is against spring hunting.

“The question to be put at the referendum will be derived from the petition,” he said.

In his address, Muscat pre-empted questions by journalists and reiterated his pre-electoral pledge to maintain the spring hunting season and the Maltese government’s “right” to derogate from the Birds Directive.

Muscat said his position was clear: “I will be voting to retain the right for the Maltese government to derogate and open spring hunting. This forms part of our electoral mandate. Everyone is in the liberty to decide what they want, even in my parliamentary group, and I will be respecting the people’s choice. I will not sit on the fence: my position is already well known. The lead should be taken by the civil society and not by the political parties.”

Asked whether he was already influencing the electorate with his statement, Muscat said he was being consistent with his position. “It is my right as a citizen to state my position. I won’t sit on the fence. It is my role as prime minister to see the effect of this petition translates into a referendum. It is my first duty to see democracy working in its totality.”

The Nationalist Party, which has yet to discuss the issue internally, accused Muscat of picking a date which suited his political expedience rather than allowing the President to choose a date as dictated by law.

“The people should be allowed to take a decision freely without having the issue politicised more than it already is,” the PN said.

Muscat defended his shrewd decision to hold a referendum just before the scheduled opening of the spring hunting season, by saying that the country was showing signs of electoral fatigue.

“The other two options were that we could have held the referendum after the hunting season – June or July – but that would have resulted in some six months of campaigning and we can’t afford half a year lost in elections.

“The other option would have been in the middle of the hunting season, a choice which would not have been fortunate for either side.”

Muscat said he hoped for a tranquil debate and while admitting his position “may not be a popular one”, he wanted to act according to his beliefs. He also said that his MPs will be allowed to express themselves freely during the campaign.

“If the referendum passes, and spring hunting is abolished, the spring hunting season will not open,” Muscat said.

A week of the campaign will coincide with Easter week and Muscat urged the parties not to hold any campaigns during that week.

“I hope that interested parties also take the common sense stand when it comes to campaigning during Easter week,” he said.

Muscat said the debate should be dominated by the protagonists but as leader of the government he should be in a position to express himself.

He also said that the campaign should be led by the movements representing hunters and conservationists.

Hunters claim referendum is ‘undemocratic’

In its first reaction since the Constitutional Court green lit the abrogative referendum against spring hunting, the hunters’ federation FKNK claimed the referendum was “undemocratic” and one which attacked “minority groups”.

“The Maltese people, all of whom form part of a minority group or other within the Maltese society, should be warned that following the hunter, it will be their turn,” FKNK claimed.

FKNK said it would confront this “challenge in order to protect the legal rights, the interests and the privileges, not just of its members, but also those of all the Maltese and Gozitans who believe that democracy means, that while it is the majority that governs, such governance should, however, be made with full respect towards minorities.”

FKNK expressed its disappointment over the actions of the MPs – with the exception of hunting enthusiast junior minister Michael Falzon – who did not feel “the necessity to consider the petition of

over 104,000 signatures” of Maltese citizens, that the FKNK submitted to the same parliamentarians in opposition to the principle of the said referendum.

It also argued that the result of the referendum can only abrogate the Framework Legal Notice that was enacted to facilitate the enactment of a further Legal Notice that has to be enacted each time that derogation is applied to permit spring hunting.

“Thus, whatever the result of the referendum, no one can take away the right that the State of Malta and any Maltese Government enjoys as a Member State of the European Union, that whenever it wants, it can apply derogation to permit spring hunting, the same right enjoyed by all other EU Member States.”

What is an abrogative referendum?

An abrogative referendum implies that a law should be removed from the statute books, so the legal process gets underway to define the question for the referendum.

The referendum will place power in the hands of the Maltese electorate to express themselves on an important national issue that the CASH has claimed will put an end to the concessions and backroom deals made between politicians and the hunting lobby at the cost of migratory birds.

Malta’s derogation of the Birds’ Directive has been applied since 2010, and has allowed the country’s hunters the possibility of a limited spring hunting season for turtle dove and quail. A total of 41,194 signatures in favour of a referendum were collected – easily surpassing the Electoral Commission’s threshold of 33,418 votes. After verifying the signatures, the Electoral Commission passed them on the Constitutional Court, requesting a referendum.