[ANALYSIS] Spring hunting: Deciphering Simon’s ‘yes’

Is Busuttil capitulating to the political blackmail of the hunters’ lobby or is he avoiding a direct clash with Muscat? JAMES DEBONO asks

Simon Busuttil - avoiding a direct clash? (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Simon Busuttil - avoiding a direct clash? (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)

Joseph Muscat’s clear stance in favour of spring hunting has already had a clear impact on voters, by shifting more Labour voters to support the spring hunting derogation.

This was evidenced in MaltaToday surveys conducted after the MEP elections in June, during which Muscat and several MEP candidates repeatedly pandered to the hunters’ votes.

But the Nationalist electorate may well react differently to a similar stance taken by their party’s leader.  

Moreover, a segment of PL voters, who may have been wary of voting against their leader’s stance if Busuttil were to campaign for the other side, may now feel free to defy their leader. They will vote in the knowledge that Busuttil will not score any points if spring hunting is abolished.

But the major problem for Busuttil is that he has not only disappointed a majority of PN voters who oppose spring hunting, he has also alienated liberal and green voters who expected Busuttil to reposition the party on this issue. This means that unlike Muscat in the divorce referendum, the PN leader will not be reaping any benefits from a ‘no’ victory.

Taking the (wrong) side?

One easy solution for Busuttil would have been to allow a free vote and to refrain from taking a stance in order not to further politicise the issue.

But such a stance would have exposed Busuttil to criticism by Muscat about being an indecisive leader.

Busuttil was keen to avoid a repetition of the civil unions debacle when he abstained in a historic parliamentary vote on this issue.

While Muscat immediately reiterated his stance in favour of spring hunting – while also allowing his party a free vote – Busuttil refused to pronounce himself immediately after the date of the referendum was announced, claiming that he had first to discuss this issue internally.   

Ironically, his final decision was to take the same approach as Muscat: a free vote for the party while expressing a personal stance in favour of spring hunting.

His hesitation gave voters the impression that the PN leader was considering changing his stance of being in favour of a limited spring hunting season, as was the case during the past months, to one against spring hunting.

As Busuttil correctly says, it was a PN government which had defended the derogation in the European Court of Justice. So why did Busuttil feel a need for a six day reflection before announcing a stand?  One valid reason for the 6-day delay is that Busuttil had to consult his party before pronouncing himself.

Although their was no public debate  Busuttil did convene the party’s  executive and parliamentary committee to discuss this issue. While this indicates that Busuttil did weigh the opinion of the party before taking a decision, Busuttil’s hesitation may  also come across as political calculation especially in view of the fact that the debate was not public. 

All this gave the impression that Busuttil was still weighing the costs of taking a stance in favour of or against spring hunting.  Moreover the fact that no MP has so far come forward supporting the no campaign, suggests that the 'free vote" given to party officials is conditioned by the party leader's stance.

This gives the impression that Busuttil’s stance is not a principled one but one dictated by Machiavellian electoral considerations even if the PN leader can claim that he is merely being consistent with his own stance prior to the EU referendum. 

Electoral considerations

One major consideration made by Busuttil is that if the ‘no’ wins, spring hunting would have been abolished on Muscat’s watch. By pronouncing himself in favour of spring hunting Busuttil is ensuring that hunters would not blame him for its abolition.  Busuttil may end up claiming that it was the Labour government’s concessions to hunters which tipped the scales against hunters.

These concessions included removing the spring hunting licence fee, doing away with the obligation to wear an armband and removing the curfew on afternoon hunting on Sundays. This may suggest that Busuttil may still consider hunters as potential switchers, as Muscat had done in opposition.

Another electoral consideration is that while the majority of PN voters disagree with spring hunting, and most hunters have already shifted to Labour, hunters’ votes may have a strategic role in a number of rural localities, especially in Gozo.

It is also likely that many MPs, worried by the strength of the hunting lobby, also put pressure on Busuttil to take a pro-hunting stance. All this seems to suggest that Busuttil, like Muscat, had his party giving in to the blackmail of the hunting lobby.  For hunters were one of the groups which ensured a massive victory for the supposedly liberal and progressive Labour party in the 2013 general election and 2014 MEP election.

The cost paid by Busuttil

Yet while Busuttil’s stance may be dictated by strategic considerations, it will surely not help the PN leader in his bid to regain the trust of the electorate. While it is extremely unlikely that hunters will believe that Busuttil is genuinely supporting their cause, liberal and green voters have probably recoiled at Busuttil’s pro-hunting declaration.

Busuttil has also lost another golden opportunity to distance himself from a derogation defended by previous PN governments. Busuttil, as head of the Malta EU Information Centre, did promise hunters that spring hunting would be protected before Malta joined the EU.

But Busuttil may well have convincingly argued that his views over this issue have changed over time, in the same way as Muscat changed his views on gay adoptions, which he opposed when elected Labour leader in 2008.  

Busuttil seems to underestimate the key role played by the divorce referendum in strengthening Muscat’s electoral appeal, even if it might have alienated conservative voters. In this way Muscat could present himself as a liberal. Busuttil may have made a similar claim for the environmentalist vote had he positioned himself against spring hunting.

A yes to save the no campaign?

But what impact will Busuttil’s stance have on voters in the April 11 referendum?

By taking the same stance as Muscat, Busuttil has ensured that the referendum will not be seen by voters as a direct personal confrontation between himself and Muscat.

This may well free Labour voters from any political obligation to vote yes out of loyalty to Joseph Muscat, as they would not see their leader beaten by a lobby supported by Simon Busuttil.

Labour voters may well find it easier to vote against the whole political establishment than simply against their Prime Minister.

What is sure is that MaltaToday surveys have shown that Labour voters had already shifted to the pro-spring hunting camp months before the referendum date was announced. 

A survey held after the MEP elections in which Muscat pronounced his position in favour of hunting several times, showed a 16 point drop in support for the abolition of spring hunting and an 18 point drop among PL voters.

Busuttil’s own stance may well dampen support for the ‘no’ campaign among PN voters. But the PN’s electorate may respond differently than Labour’s to the stance taken by the party leader.

Anti-hunting views may be ingrained among a large section of urban PN voters, irrespective of the party’s position. Such voters may also feel a strong motivation to avenge the 1995 deal between the PL and hunters, which had a key role in Alfred Sant’s victory in 1996. 

A large segment of PN voters may have already opposed the spring hunting derogation even when the PN was in government. They may have viewed hunters as ungrateful lobbyists who were constantly humiliating PN-led governments.

Yet inflicting a defeat on Muscat may have increased the motivation of PN-leaning voters.

In fact this proved to be a key factor in the strong response to the petition collected just months after Labour’s 2013 electoral victory, which led to the referendum. In the absence of such a strong political motivation, some PN voters may well stay away from the polls. 

It is the PN which stands to gain most from a ‘no’ result, for the simple reason that it was Muscat who had signed a pre-electoral deal with hunters which will be nullified by the referendum.

But it will also be difficult for Busuttil to send a message that the party stands to benefit from a ‘no’ victory when he himself is voting yes.  

Therefore Busuttil’s stance cuts both ways; while it may increase support for the abolition of spring hunting among Labour voters who were reluctant to do so as they did not want to make Busuttil any favours, it may de-motivate a number of PN voters who would have voted no to spite Muscat.

Ultimately the referendum may test the electorate’s propensity to challenge the stance taken by both political parties, which together represented more than 90% of eligible voters and 98% of valid votes.

Busuttil’s stance has turned the referendum into one pitting the people against the whole political establishment. Will the people prevail?

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