Taking back control

turtle dove

 

Throughout this Sunday morning the Electoral Commission will supervise the counting of the votes cast  in yesterday’s  spring hunting abrogative referendum. The first reliable projections of the result should be available at around  10.00am with a final result early in the afternoon.

Irrespective of the result, this is history in the making as, for the first time ever, Maltese voters will be directly taking a decision on environmental policy. They will decide whether spring hunting in the Maltese islands will be consigned to the history books.

This is the end of a two year journey that began in  April 2013 when the first steps were taken to form a broad-based anti-spring hunting Coalition of  environmental NGOs together with Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party in Malta. Initially, Alternattiva Demokratika’s initiative was met with scepticism: there was widespread fear of confronting the parliamentary political parties which had created the current spring hunting mess.

Constructive dialogue with both the Maltese authorities as well as with the EU Commission had failed to yield results, yet when push came to shove there was still considerable reluctance to think outside the box.  This mess could not be cleared by applying the same thinking that led to its creation. The spring hunting mess was created by successive governments that were held to ransom by the hunting lobby. There was only one solution: government was the problem so it could never be part of the solution – civil society had to take back control of the decision-making process to have order restored.

This was going to be a mammoth task. The fact that the abrogative referendum tool had never been used since its introduction in 1998 understandably added to the reluctance.

As late as 18 June 2013, some environmental NGOs were still hoping that the Maltese Government, or the EU Commission itself, would act in a reasonable manner and stop spring hunting.  In fact, reports in the press at that time were speculating on then EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik initiating an inquiry into spring hunting in Malta.

Early in the day, few people were conscious of the empowerment potential of the abrogative referendum. Almost none of the eNGOs was aware that the abrogative referendum process is independent  of government or Parliament.  Some eNGOs  supported the initiative almost immediately but it was an uphill struggle to convince others, taking weeks and a great deal of patience until practically all eNGOs were on board.

The collection of signatures to initiate the process for calling this abrogative referendum was launched on 10 August 2013 at Il-Buskett. Initially the uptake was very slow, as voters took some time to understand that this was no ordinary petition.

Then, on 23 and 24 October 2013, one of the worst massacres of wild birds in Malta took place. It is best described in a Birdlife Press release which stated  as follows :

“Despite the presence of six BirdLife Malta teams and as many ALE units in the Buskett area this morning at least one Booted Eagle, Ajkla tal-Kalzetti, was shot down inside Buskett Gardens as it left its roost this morning. Several others, including Short-toed and Booted Eagles, were shot at and many more were seen carrying injuries after last night’s shooting spree by hunters in Dingli, Buskett, Girgenti, Siġġiewi and Zebbuġ.

This morning’s second confirmed victim was a Short-toed Eagle, Ajkla Bajda, shot down in Gozo.

The shootings follow what can only be described as a massacre yesterday evening, after more than 50 eagles were seen by birdwatchers counting passing migrating birds in their regular watch-point above the wooded valley of Buskett. At least 10 eagles are known to have been shot down and many more targeted by dozens of hunters in locations around Buskett. Several as yet unconfirmed reports were also received from members of the public who saw eagles and other large birds of prey being shot at and shot down.”

This marked the turning point in signature collection as within ten days of the massacre of these eagles the required number of signatures had been received . The verification process was commenced immediately and the petition was finalised for submission to the Electoral Commission.

By July 2014, the Electoral Commission had concluded its vetting of the signatures submitted and six months later, in January this year, the Constitutional Court threw out the hunters’ objections.

For the past three months we have been actively campaigning to drive the message home: spring is the time when birds are on the way to their breeding grounds. They need to be protected. This message has been conveyed through the different spokesman and women ambassadors who, together with hundreds of volunteers, have done wonders to ensure that practically every voter is aware the he or she has the power to take a decision in order to clean up the mess which Parliament and the government have created over the years.

Today we will know what the decision is.  Saving any last minute surprises, it is clear that after today’s result Maltese civil society will cherish its newly discovered empowerment. Tomorrow, Monday, will not be just the start of a new week.  Hopefully, it be the start of a new era of ever-vigilant NGOs, now armed with the knowledge that they can hold government to account for inadequate legislation whenever they consider that this is necessary.

The abrogative referendum is the tool through which civil society can bring government to order. Today’s result will just confirm whether it can make use of it.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 April 2015

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