Saturday’s protest in front of the Prime Minister’s office over the gifting of Malta’s largest woodlands to hunters is not expected to yield any immediate results irrespective of the turnout, but it feeds into a growing sentiment that is pernicious to Labour’s electoral balance sheet.
Although the government has been caught off guard by the feeling of repulsiveness over the rushed deal with the hunters’ federation to manage the woodlands at Il-Mizieb and L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha earlier this month, no government would want to rescind a deal of this type in response to public sentiment.
The fact that a coalition of NGOs launched a court challenge this week means that the decision on revocation of the deal now rests in the courts’ hands.
The government will probably seek to stall the court process over technicalities, particularly to avoid any damaging revelations on the manoeuvrings that led to the deal.
Few people doubt that the deal was motivated by electoral calculations. It is one of a confluence of moves designed to pander to hunters and trappers in this legislature’s home stretch to a general election, irrespective of whether that happens in 2021 or 2022.
The government has simultaneously opened a trapping season for finches after this was shut down by the European Court of Justice in 2018, and made sure that enforcement slackened.
It is telling that the agreement with the hunters’ federation on the ‘management’ of woodlands expires in three years’ time, a departure from the usual practice of signing ten-year management deals with NGOs. This gives hunters the idea that they had better put their weight behind Labour in the election as it might be more inclined to renew the agreement after the general election.
Similarly, the renewed trapping season, after it had been closed for two years, is another short-term indulgence – the derogation from EU law is so badly designed, and so obviously at odds with EU law, which takes primacy over national law, that it’s a matter of when, not if, the courts (either in Malta or in Luxembourg) shut down finch trapping again.
Ironically, the widespread opposition to the deal with hunters to manage large tracts of woodlands, as well as the sustained bad press, raises questions on whether indulging hunters and trappers would indeed yield a net gain of votes for Labour.
While a greater proportion of hunters would be expected to vote Labour, the bad press on Mizieb is playing into a growing narrative that bodes badly for the Party among other sectors of the electorate.
In that narrative, Labour is increasingly perceived as being too beholden to environmental spoilers – symbolised by developers and hunters – as well as having powered the economy through construction, environmental destruction and passport sales. The direction chosen is not only unsustainable but also degrades the quality of life.
Some of these sectors are now faltering. Passport sales are on the way out given the EU’s legal action and COVID has wreaked havoc with tourism, intensifying the relative reliance on construction increasingly associated with bad economic planning by Labour.
Add to this the perception that this government has lost its moral bearings, and the narrative being promoted by Bernard Grech that this government has run out of ideas starts to find resonance beyond the PN’s core voters.
Labour did manage to garner votes from interest groups in 2017, but that effort was moulded into a larger idea packed with feel good factors. That larger vision – or social and economic idea promoted by Labour since 2013 – has been unravelling as social and economic circumstances change, and losing its appeal amid a shift in people’s sensibilities.
Shorn of that larger idea or narrative, the pandering to hunters and trappers seems not so much an act of a confident government but a scramble by a government worried of losing.
So, who benefits?
Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, given the hunting and trapping portfolio by Prime Minister Robert Abela, probably stands to directly benefit given the number of hunters and trappers in Gozo, as well as the sympathetic social environment. It might help Labour retain and even increase the larger share of the vote in Gozo, a traditionally PN-leaning region, particularly since the pandering to hunters is occurring in parallel with a surge in civil service appointments.
There may be more gains of hunters’ votes in Malta as well, but overall, because this feeds into the larger sentiment that Labour has lost its way, it may contribute to a wider national electoral shift that would outbalance any direct gains of hunters’ votes.
That tidal electoral shift has not gained any momentum yet, but the stirrings have become unmistakable.
Spazji Miftuha, coalition of over 60 NGOs, is inviting the public to join a protest on Saturday 31 October at 10am at Castille Square, Valletta.