After years of shooting down flamingos, swans and other protected birds, hunters — or, rather, their representatives — are now taking aim at that increasingly exotic, endangered bird: our democracy.
Thanks to a 1996 law, passed by Eddie Fenech Adami’s government, we citizens have the right to call an abrogative referendum — a referendum to strike down a law we don’t like. What we’d need are the signatures of 10% of registered voters (roughly 40,000 at present), verified by the Electoral Commission.
Obviously, there are well-defined limits. Financial laws, and fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution or the European Charter of Human Rights, cannot be struck down. And for the referendum to be valid, over half the electorate needs to vote.
The right to an abrogative referendum is not trivial. It protects us against special interest groups with undue influence over our laws.
An unpopular law can be struck down. The referendum gives ordinary citizens additional protection against plutocrats and cronies. Lord knows we need all the protection we can get.
Now, however, the hunters’ lobby has our democratic right in its sights. It is petitioning parliament to make it more difficult to hold such a referendum. The current law can be changed by a simple majority.
The 2015 referendum to abolish spring hunting was an abrogative one. The hunters won by a whisker after Labour helped out with mobilisation. Now that another referendum may be on the horizon, the hunters’ lobby doesn’t want that close shave again.
It’s turning to its friends in politics. Having already been helped by a government ready to twist language out of all recognition, so that hunting took place under the cover of “scientific research”, do not be surprised if the lobby attempts to get MPs to engage in another shameless distortion.
The hunters have long claimed to be a “minority group”, with rights that cannot be infringed by an abrogative referendum. This is nonsense. To be a political minority, it’s not enough to be a group that is statistically in the minority. You need to belong to a group that has a sexual, gender, racial, ethnic or religious identity.
Hunters are not a minority group. They are a special interest group. It’s perfectly legitimate to belong to such a group and lobby on its behalf. But you don’t get to benefit from rights that protect minorities.
The lobby knows this. If hunters really were a minority group, the Constitution and the European Charter would already protect them, and the hunters would have gone to court to have their status confirmed. But they haven’t.
In Europe, with their allies, they don’t lobby as a “minority”. They’d be ridiculed if they tried. But, in Malta, where an MEP has publicly wished hunters well at the start of their season of “research”, they can realistically hope to get away with nonsense.
If that fails, the lobby has another trick up its sleeve. It says that 10% of the electorate is too small a threshold for a thing as serious as a referendum, which can be abused for “frivolous” ends.
Ten per cent, too small? It’s actually at the top end, in Europe, for referendums called through popular initiatives.
Latvia, Croatia, North Macedonia and Lithuania are up there with us. Switzerland and Italy require only 1%. Even Russia, for goodness’ sake, requires only 2%.
Open to frivolous exploitation? The law already protects against this. You need over 50% of the electorate to vote for the referendum result to be valid. Will 180,000 voters turn out for something frivolous?
If the hunters get their way, they would have negated the very point of the abrogative referendum: to protect the rest of us against the undue influence of special interest groups like them. We will have had our democratic rights further eroded.
It used to be tempting to think the special concessions granted to hunters do not affect the rest of us. That illusion is now shattered. Our democratic rights are in the balance.
If parliament accommodates the hunters — by finding what the prime minister likes to call a ‘balance’ — the pendulum of power will swing even further in the direction of the ruthless interests that wish to turn the country into their personal property.
Any MP or political party that accommodates the hunters, even by a single inch, will deserve to be called out for what they are: enemies of democracy.