The motion calling on the government to retract the extended hours for hunting at the Majjistral nature park presented by Democratic Party (PD) MP Godfrey Farrugia had put the new PN leadership in a Catch 22 position.
While supporting the motion would have put the party in synch with civil society and probably the majority of both its voters and middle of the road voters, it also risked further alienating hunters who are crucial in strategic rural districts where the party suffered major losses to Labour in the two past elections.
Ironically Marlene Farrugia was herself was very sensitive to the hunting lobby when before the election she made it a point to exclude a new referendum on Spring hunting. Another twist was that the motion was presented by Godfrey Farrugia who unlike his partner Marlene had opposed the abolition of Spring hunting.
Who is calling the shots?
Politically the PN was faced with a scenario of its former coalition ally calling the shots. Unsurprisingly the PN leadership reacted by scrapping the Forza Nazzjonali agreement on the eve of the vote of the PD’s hunting motion. In this way the PN sent a clear message that it did not want to associate itself with the antics of its former allies.
Yet the PN has put itself in another quandary by failing to take on the government on an issue where it could have assumed the high moral ground. Moreover it gave the two PD MPs the opportunity to stand up for the public against the interests of a lobby group. This is because the legal notice has extended hunting hours until 12.30pm, every day except Wednesdays, during Spring and Autumn, the best time, when families can experience Malta’s nature.
The case against the extension of hunting hours at Majjistral nature park was easier to make than that against Spring hunting. For while the referendum was about stopping hunters from exercising their hobby in Spring, in this case the argument was that of allowing the majority of the people to enjoy the nature park in peace while hunters could still practice their hobby elsewhere.
Who is afraid of taking a stance?
In contrast to the PD’s clear stance, the PN’s motion which asked for more consultation in view of objections from environmental groups represented on the park’s administration board came across as a bland abstention; a way of trying to please everyone which always ends with pleasing no one.
The PN has not learned much from its past mistakes when it ended up disappointing everyone when for instance it abstained on civil unions. Once again the party appeared to be afraid of taking a stance. While environmentalists have now disowned the PN, hunters probably think that the PN is simply following Muscat’s lead.
Delia who himself had boldly declared voting against Spring hunting in an interview with Lovin Malta seems to have been keener on setting the record straight with the Farrugias than on capitalising on an issue which may have seen him in synch with the majority of PN voters.
Surveys conducted before the spring hunting referendum had shown 67% of PN voters defying party instructions in their intention to vote against Spring hunting.
One major concern of the PN in this case was to curtail losses in hunting localities.
For the spring hunting also exposed a clear regional divide between the south and western regions traditionally dominated by the Labour Party which voted ‘yes’ and the northern districts traditionally dominated by the PN which voted ‘no’.
The only exception was the inner harbour first district, which returned a Labour majority in the last general election but which voted ‘no’ in the referendum. Gozo, a district won by the Labour Party in the last election proved vital to the Yes victory, thanks to its substantial turnout and majority for spring hunting.
Delia’s stance may be sensitive to these electoral realities but risks further alienating his party from that very segment which is most hostile to his leadership; urban middle class pale blue voters with a more liberal and cosmopolitan inclination who were probably in tune with slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s criticism of his leadership bid.
Even more dangerously for Delia, the PN’s motion succeeded in uniting government and opposition against the PD. In this way the PN’s stance was music to the PD’s ears. The fact that the government ended up supporting the PN’s motion ended up strengthening the PD’s narrative; that Delia is not any different from Labour.
To be fair to Delia this was always the case with regards hunting, with his predecessor Simon Busuttil directing voters to vote yes for spring hunting in the 2015 referendum.
The only success for Delia on Monday was that of preventing a second backbench revolt, something which would have been devastating following the defection of six MP’s in the vote on the IVF leave issue.
The PD’s big gamble
For the PD the motion represented an excellent opportunity to distinguish itself from both parties in parliament even if it could come at a cost for the party in pro-hunting districts.
It may also indicate that with MEP elections in mind, the PD is directly aiming at voters in Nationalist leaning urban districts. In so doing it risks alienating voters in pro-hunting districts which includes Godfrey Farrugia’s home town Zebbug.
By closing his door on the PD and voting against its motion on hunting, Delia may have sent a message to influential lobbies that he will chose them over the PN’s former allies.
But having nothing to lose, the PD may become even more dangerous for the PN, and may continue bringing up issues which further embarrass Delia with a large section of his own voters. Instead of containing the PD in a loose alliance or the promise of one, Delia may have unleashed the Farrugias against him.