A future for the birds

sample ballot

 

Next Saturday we will be voting to give a future to the wild birds that migrate to Malta. By removing from Malta’s statute book the legal notice that permits the spring hunting of quail and turtle dove, Maltese voters will bring Malta in line with its obligations.

Nowhere does the Conservation of Wild Birds Directive of the European Union or Malta’s treaty of adhesion to the European Union permit spring hunting as a sport. The basic rules in the Directive, in fact,  prohibit the killing of wild birds in spring. The only permissible exceptions are related to aviation safety, the protection of public health and safety, and the prevention of serious damage to livestock, agricultural crops, fisheries and water as well as the protection of flora and fauna. Hunting as a sport does not feature anywhere in the list of reasons as a result of which a derogation from the duties spelt out in the EU Directive is permissible. It is a Directive that deals with the conservation of wild birds and not with hunting!

The Conservation of Wild Birds Directive of the European Union has been an integral part of Maltese law since – and as a result of – Malta’s  accession to the EU in 2004. It expressly states that EU Member States along migratory bird routes have a far greater responsibility for the conservation of wild birds. This  responsibility is very clearly spelled out in article 7(4) of the Directive, where it is stated that : “In the case of migratory species, [Member States] shall see in particular that the species to which hunting regulations apply are not hunted during their period of reproduction or during their return to their rearing grounds.” This applies to all bird migratory routes throughout  EU territory without exception.

Prohibiting spring hunting is not a question of numbers. It is not an issue of establishing a number of birds that can be shot without such a shoot-out having an impact on the bird population. It is an issue of principle. And there should be no playing around with principles. Wild birds require protection during the time of year when they are most vulnerable – in the period leading up to, and during,  the breeding season, that is spring.

Besides, the populations of both quail and turtle dove do not have a favourable conservation status in the EU and, as a result, are subject to  management plans. The aim of these management plans is to restore the species to a favourable conservation status. The EU management plan for quail, for example, specifically states that “Spring hunting that overlaps with the return migration or the start of breeding should not be permitted under any circumstances.”

The EU Management Plan for turtle dove, on the other hand, states: “of particular concern is hunting during the spring migration, which is practiced outside the EU and (illegally) in some other Mediterranean countries.”

This is the subject of the referendum: the future of wild birds in Malta in the spring.

There are, however, other issues that will be decided as a result of the 11 April referendum. Banning spring hunting on Maltese territory will remove a major obstacle which is impeding  access to the countryside to our families because of the dangers and arrogance of the men with the guns.  It will put the bullies roaming the countryside in the spring in their proper place.

This bullying is still going on, because in recent days we have had one of the leaders of the hunting lobby stating that, in the event of a victory for the NO vote in the referendum, the abolition of spring hunting might be contested. It comes as no surprise that the hunting lobby has no respect for the democratic will of Malta’s voters. Its members have repeatedly been sending clear signals that they are allergic to the democratic process. For years, they have  been holding  the parliamentary political parties to ransom. They have also presented a petition requesting the practical abolition of the right to call an abrogative referendum. Fortunately, the government had the good sense to ignore that petition!

A No vote on 11 April is hence also a vote on democracy. It will give a clear message to everyone of the ability of Maltese voters to decide. In the process it will liberate the parliamentary political parties from the clutches of their blackmailers.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 5 April 2015

The 11 April vote : not against hunters

 

kacca u voti

The issue to be decided upon on 11 April is whether Malta should accept or repeal the regulations that permit spring hunting.

In fact the question asked in the referendum is as follows : Do you agree that the provisions of the “Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtle Dove and Quail Regulations” (Subsidiary Legislation 504.94) should continue in force?

On the 11 April we are expected to answer this question. A YES signifies agreement with spring hunting while a NO will abolish spring hunting from Malta’s statute book. It will also bring Malta in line with the Wild Birds Directive of the European Union.

The Wild Birds Directive is about the protection of biodiversity and not about facilitating hunting. As has been emphasised by university students on the campus this week, the focus of the referendum is sustainability. It is not about pleasing hunters but about our duties as a nation to protect wild birds. We have a duty, as a nation, to protect wild birds. We have a duty -all of us- to protect nature. In particular, we have a duty to prevent the loss of biodiversity.

Spring is the time when birds fly over Malta on their way to their breeding grounds. Malta, as one of the member states of the European Union along the route used by wild birds on their way to their rearing grounds, has a special responsibility to ensure that these birds are not hunted and can safely reach their destination.

The permissible exceptions are limited and very specific. These exceptions are known as “derogations”. The Wild Birds Directive permits the killing of wild birds during spring if these are a threat to aviation security. Likewise, the killing of wild birds in the spring is permissible if they are agricultural pests or else pose a sanitary threat. The Wild Birds Directive does not, in any way, permit the killing of birds for fun.

There are a number of inaccuracies being bandied around by the hunting lobby during this referendum campaign. They state, for example, that Malta has negotiated a derogation relative to spring hunting.  This is incorrect. No EU member has negotiated, or can negotiate, any spring hunting derogation. Derogations are not designed to suite the interests of individual states and the rules regulating such derogations are spelt out clearly and are applicable to all member states in equal measure.

The decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2009 is also being grossly misinterpreted and quoted out of context. The ECJ decision does not in any way condone spring hunting. It does, in fact, chastise Malta for infringing the Wild Birds Directive during the period 2004-2007 and concludes that, by authorising spring hunting of quails and turtle doves  from 2004 to 2007, Malta has failed to comply with the Wild Birds Directive. (ECJ decision C-76/08 dated 9 September 2009) The reports on the derogations unilaterally taken by the Maltese government to permit spring hunting from 2008 to date are still being evaluated by the European Commission.

These are briefly the issues which the 11 April will decide. As a direct consequence of abolishing spring hunting, in addition to shouldering our responsibilities as a nation to protect wild birds during their breeding time we will have the added benefit of reclaiming the countryside during spring.

This abrogative referendum is a democratic tool which is being utilised for the first time by civil society in Malta. It is being used because, over the years, the parliamentary political parties preferred to listen to the hunting lobby which repeatedly warned them: “No hunting no vote”   and had them on a leash.

Maybe this time they will take heed, that even environmentalists have a vote.  It is not a vote against hunters, but a vote in favour of wild birds and their protection. It is a vote in favour of our environment and in favour of Malta .

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 22nd March 2015

The bullying continues

turtle doves just shot

 

Earlier this week the Ornis Committee recommended that the next spring hunting season should be opened. The government  obliged on  Thursday by declaring that, subject to the result of the abrogative referendum, the spring  hunting season for turtle dove and quail will open on Tuesday 14 April and will close on Thursday 30 April.

The Ornis Committee is appointed by the government in terms of regulation 10(2) of the Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations. Its role is one of advising the Minister for the Environment on various aspects relative to the implementation of the regulations.

The Ornis Committee decided to recommend in favour of the opening of the spring hunting season by three votes in favour with a solitary vote against. The hunters’ representatives on the Ornis Committee voted in favour, whilst those from Birdlife voted against the opening of the spring hunting season. The additional support for spring hunting came from two “independent” members appointed by the government on the Ornis Committee. The chairman and the MEPA representative both  abstained from voting.

Why all this fuss?

It is because on the eve of an abrogative referendum the recommendation is unethical. In addition, it flies straight in the face of scientific evidence which, without a shadow of doubt, proves (if any such proof was ever required)  that the hunting of turtle dove and quail in spring is unsustainable.

The evidence comes from official reports released by the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, confirming that both quail and turtle dove numbers are at an all time low across Europe. The reports further show that the numbers of quail migrating over Malta are actually higher in autumn than in spring, negating two common arguments made use of by those lobbing in favour of  spring hunting.

The official report compiled by the Wild Birds Regulation Unit on the conservation status of quail and turtle dove gives the most recent data on the two species, showing that the turtle dove have even declined again in recent years. A decrease of a further three per cent since 2012 brings the total reduction in their European population to 77% since 1980.

This report confirms that both quail and turtle dove are in decline across Europe, with their numbers at an all time low. It therefore doesn’t make sense to shoot them in spring when they are on their way to breed, as their numbers don’t get a chance to recover.

Malta is the only country in Europe to shoot migrating turtle dove and quail on their way to breed … and this just for pleasure. Official scientific reports now make it clear that these species are in trouble across Europe and we need to give them a chance. There is no justification for spring hunting

A second report, with the results of a government commissioned study on the migration of turtle dove and quail during the autumn 2014 hunting season, was published on 2 March. One of the arguments for spring shooting is that hunters claim not enough of the birds pass over Malta in autumn for them to shoot. Yet the independent study shows that more quail actually migrate through Malta during the autumn season than in spring.

This scientific study concludes that the numbers of quail flying over Malta during the autumn hunting season are actually higher than in spring, completely undermining one of the hunters’ arguments for a spring hunting season.

The report concluded that 45,683 quail and 7,956 turtle dove migrated over Malta during September and October 2014, during an autumn hunting season.  In spring, hunters are allowed to shoot a total of 16,000 of both species combined because they have argued that they do not have enough birds to shoot in autumn.

Faced with this scientific evidence, which confirms what we have known all along, the recommendation of the Ornis Committee does not make sense. It can only be interpreted as a last stand of defiance. Hunting sympathisers still believe that they can bully their way through.

Voters have only one way of stopping this bullying: voting NO on 11 April.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 15 March 2015

11 April 2015 : Empowerment Day

empowerment

The spring hunting referendum called as result of a citizens’ petition and scheduled for 11 April 2015 will protect birds. It will honour a basic requirement spelled out in the EU’s Birds Directive, which insists on this protection along birds’ migratory routes on the way to their breeding grounds.

The spring hunting referendum signifies different things to different persons. It is first and foremost a concrete step in addressing a bird conservation issue which has been ignored throughout the years, despite Malta’s international obligations. It will also facilitate access to the countryside for one and all throughout spring. In addition it is also a democratic tool through which civil society stands up to the countryside bullies. When all three achievements are attained, and eventually taken for granted, there will be one lasting consequence: the spring hunting referendum will be the defining moment of empowerment of Maltese civil society.  It will be the gift of present day civil society to future generations.

When addressing Parliament on the abrogative referendum on 12 January, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recognised this fact and declared that the dominant role of politicians in decision taking is changing (“naħseb li bħala politiċi irridu nifhmu li l-proċess li wassal għal dan ir-referendum huwa sinjal taż-żminijiet. Huwa sinjal li d-dominanza tal-politiċi fit-teħid tad-deċiżjonijiet qed tonqos.”)

On the 11 April civil society in Malta will come of age.

11 April will be the point when civil society realises that, at the end of the day, it is the source of all authority in decision taking structures. 11 April can be the day when this authority is  made use of to rectify past mistaken decisions.  In so doing, civil society in Malta will be giving notice to one and all that ultimately the common good can and will prevail.

When the petition calling for the abrogative referendum on spring hunting was doing the rounds, some thought that it was just another petition, which would be forgotten as soon as it was submitted. However, when the Constitutional Court delivered its decision on the 9 January giving the green light to the first abrogative referendum in the Maltese islands, the message was received clearly by one and all.

11 April means that change is possible. Moreover it also means that change is not dependent on general election results. The dormant authority of civil society is being reactivated.

Last Wednesday, a group of jurists led by former European Court of Human Rights Judge Giovanni Bonello explained to the press that the spring hunting referendum posed no threat to any hobby. In practically all cases which were listed in a study released by the group of jurists, it is evident that the abrogative referendum itself cannot even be applied to the said hobbies. Most hobbies are unregulated, meaning that there is no legislation of relevance to abrogate. In this respect the abrogative referendum procedure is not applicable!

As regards other hobbies like horse racing, the manufacture and letting off of fireworks and off-roading, existing laws and regulations specify who the licensing authorities are, and the rules to be followed. Subjecting these rules to an abrogative referendum would mean that these activities would be unfettered by regulations, if a hypothetical referendum were approved. That could not in any way be construed as a threat to such hobbies or pastimes.

The jurists were replying to the scaremongering campaign of the hunting lobby.

It is pretty obvious that the hunting lobby is not enthusiastic about citizens being empowered to call an abrogative referendum and decide, where applicable, contentious issues. They prefer to discuss issues behind closed doors, where they can lobby and barter their votes for concessions. This is what they did throughout the years and this is the essential background to the present state of affairs.

This is the reason why some months back the hunting lobby petitioned Parliament to overhaul the referendum legislation. In their petition they asked for protection of some imaginary “minority rights” which the Constitutional Court on 9 January, declared as being inexistent.

On 11 April, we will for the first time ever vote in an abrogative referendum called through a citizens’ initiative. We will decide whether we agree or not with the regulations which permit hunting of quail and turtledove in spring on their way to breed. I do not agree with spring hunting and will be voting NO.

I invite you to join me in voting NO, thereby abolishing spring hunting in Malta for the benefit of birds and future generations.

 

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 1 February 2015

Real and imaginary referenda

Kacca + Vot

 

The abrogative referendum which was given the green light by Malta’s Constitutional Court earlier this month is the first of its kind. It is a referendum which, if successful, will delete from Malta’s statute book regulations which permit spring hunting on quail and turtledove.

In its efforts to  build up support in favour of the retention of spring hunting, the hunting lobby has been repeatedly sending out the message that if this referendum were to succeed, it would pave the way for a multitude of other referenda which, in their words, would threaten various hobbies which they label as minorities. They mention a few of these hobbies  among which pigeon racing.  Obviously, they fail to state that the only real threat to racing pigeon enthusiasts here are those who shoot at anything that flies. And it is not just a one-off incident.

The hunting lobby is not enthusiastic  about the referendum process enhancing democracy in our islands by granting the possibility to voters to demand that a specific legislative instrument is subjected to a  popular vote. They would rather that such a right did not exist.  As witnessed throughout recent years, the hunting lobby prefers the option to acquire concessions through back room deals and agreements with political parties arrived at through a process of bartering votes for concessions.  The statement “NO Kaċċa, NO vote” has been all too familiar in public manifestations organised by the hunting lobby throughout the years.

The abrogative referendum in Malta was introduced through amendments to the Referendum Act approved by Parliament in 1996. Going through the transcripts of the Parliamentary Debate of the 15th and  16th January 1996 reveals an interesting contrast between the speeches of Eddie Fenech Adami, then Prime Minister, and Alfred Sant, then Leader of the Opposition, in the second reading stage of the debate.

Dr Fenech Adami  spoke in favour of a limited right of referendum – limited in the sense that a set of identified legislative instruments could not be subjected to an abrogative referendum.  On the other hand, Dr Sant wanted to extend the limitations. In fact, he emphasised that once a political proposal was part of a political party’s electoral manifesto it should not be possible to subject it to the abrogative referendum process.  Fenech Adami and Sant had also disagreed on whether  it was the appropriate time to introduce a citizens’ initiative through which rather than using the referendum as a negative instrument to cancel a legislative instrument, it would be utilised to submit a proposal to popular vote.  This could take the form of a proposal that Parliament should legislate on a specific matter, or even possibly that policies be drafted relative to neglected issues.

The conclusions of the 1996 debate are with us today, being applied for the first time: Parliament decided to introduce the right to petition for the deletion of legislation. It did not opt to introduce the right to propose new initiatives.

When Parliament decided on the parameters within which the abrogative referendum was to operate, it specifically excluded a number of laws – the Constitution, the European Convention Act and all fiscal legislation; also, all matters required in  implementing any international treaty to which Malta is party cannot be subjected to an abrogative referendum. Likewise, the legislative measures introducing the right to an abrogative referendum as well as electoral legislation cannot be the subject of a petition leading to an abrogative referendum.

When identifying the subject matter for a referendum, the petitioners, with the help of their advisors, examine the different legislative instruments  which deal with the issues under consideration.  Care must be exercised such that the legislation selected as the subject of the referendum does not go beyond what is strictly required. For the 11 April referendum the Coalition for the Abolition of Spring Hunting opted for a 2010 Legal Notice  entitled Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtle Dove and Quail Regulations as the legislative instrument to be voted upon. In so doing, the Coalition’s referendum petition differentiated between the general regulatory legislation on wild birds and the legislation which defined the exceptions which are being permitted during spring. The target of the abrogative referendum being the exception to the rule.

As a result the referendum petition is clear and specific and leads to one conclusion: the abolition or otherwise of spring hunting in Malta. This is the only referendum on the national agenda .

 

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday – 25 January 2015

Il-logħob tan-nar, ż-żwiemel u r-referendum

Malta fireworks

F’kull votazzjoni li jkun hawn fil-pajjiż ikun hawn min jipprova jqarraq billi jxerred informazzjoni falza. Jiġifieri jxerred il-gideb.

Bil-liġi li għandna f’Malta ma jistax jinġabru firem biex isir referendum ħalli jispiċċa l-logħob tan-nar. L-anqas ma jistgħu jinġabru l-firem biex jitneħħew iż-żwiemel mit-toroq.  Għax ir-referendum abrogattiv ifisser votazzjoni li biha nivvutaw favur jew kontra li nneħħu liġi jew regolamenti.

Issa jekk nivvutaw kontra regolamenti dwar il-logħob tan-nar ikun ifisser li nispiċċaw bla regolamenti u allura l-Gvern ma jkollux poter fuq il-kmamar tal-logħob tan-nar. L-istess jgħodd għaż-żwiemel: referendum dwar iż-żwiemel ma jistax ineħħihom mit-toroq. Jista’ biss ineħħi regolamenti dwar iż-żwiemel. U bla regolamenti l-Gvern ikollu inqas poteri fuq iż-żwiemel.

Fi ftit biss huwa biss il-Parlament li jista’ jnaqqas jew ineħħi ż-żwiemel mit-toroq u fil-fatt il-Ministeru tat-Trasport f’dawn il-ġranet sejjaħ numru ta’ laqgħat propju għalhekk, biex jirregola aħjar u jnaqqas iż-żwiemel fit-toroq.

L-istess dwar il-logħob tan-nar. Huwa biss il-Gvern li għandu is-setgħa li jnaqqas jew jirregola iktar il-logħob tan-nar. Kull tant żmien jagħmel hekk biex itejjeb ir-regolamenti dwar kif iħares is-saħħa u l-ħajja ta’ dawk kollha li għandhom x’jaqsmu mal-logħob tan-nar.

Jiġifieri l-ebda referendum ma jista’ iwaqqaf il-logħob tan-nar jew ineħħi ż-żwiemel mit-toroq.

Fir-referendum tal-11 t’April fil-fatt ser nivvutaw dwar ir-regolamenti li bihom il-Gvern qed jagħti permess biex issir il-kaċċa fir-rebbiegħa għall-gamiem u s-summien.  Jekk nivvutaw LE ir-regolamenti jispiċċaw u l-Gvern ma jkunx jista’ iktar jippermetti kaċċa għall-gamiem u s-summien fir-rebbiegħa.

Protecting the birds, reclaiming the countryside

 

turtle doves just shot

The abolition of spring hunting will lead to the protection of birds when they most need it. All birds will be protected, not just the quail and turtle dove.  Birds need our protection during the spring as it is the time of the year when they breed or are preparing to breed. Every bird which is shot during spring signifies that there will be one less nest and consequently there will be fewer birds in the following seasons.

The Birds  Directive of the European Union is an integral part of Maltese law since, and as a result of, Malta’s EU  accession in 2004. The Directive expressly states that EU Member States along migratory bird routes have a far greater responsibility regarding bird protection. This responsibility is spelled out in article 7(4) of the Directive where it is very clearly stated that : “In the case of migratory species, [member states] shall see in particular that the species to which hunting regulations apply are not hunted during their period of reproduction or during their return to their rearing grounds.” This applies to all bird migratory routes throughout EU territory without exception.

The Birds Directive is not a Directive about hunting but about the protection of birds. It does, however, recognise that circumstances may arise as a result of which it may be necessary to permit an exception, which exception is called “a derogation”. Exceptions are very well defined in article 9(1) of the Birds Directive (vide box) and these are the only circumstances in respect of which an EU member state may derogate from its obligations under the Birds Directive. It follows that whilst EU members have the authority to permit an exception, such an exception, or derogation,  must be within the three general parameters determined by the Directive. It is not a right but a tool for addressing the specific situations mentioned in the Directive. Readers will very easily notice that the permissible derogations make no reference to the killing of birds for fun – commonly referred to as “hunting”.

Member states permit thousands of derogations in their territory every year. Derogations in respect of birds that are considered agricultural pests or a potential threat to the safety of aeroplanes are the most frequent cases where derogations are permitted. I am informed that the list of these thousands of derogations all over EU territory does not contain one single case which refers to a derogation for the purpose of sports during spring. Malta is the only exception.

Being on a migratory bird route means that Malta has an international responsibility to protect all birds returning to their rearing grounds to reproduce. This return occurs annually during spring, hence the need to abolish spring hunting. It is a duty we have towards the international community in respect of all the birds migrating through Maltese airspace.

The abrogative referendum, in respect of which Malta’s Constitutional Court decided that no valid objections had been filed, will ask voters whether or not they agree with the regulations that permit a spring hunting derogation for two specific species: turtle dove and quail. These regulations are contained in the Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtle Dove and Quail Regulations, originally published in 2010.

Voting NO on the 11 April  will protect  birds migrating over Malta during spring as well as restore back to the public access to the countryside at that time of the year. It will also eliminate the negative impact (through the sound of gunfire and the trampling all over the countryside) which will further help to attract and allow other breeding birds (not just quail and turtle dove) to nest in our country.

Currently, Malta’s countryside is practically inaccessible during the spring hunting season as one runs the risk of being showered with hunters’ pellets. Maltese families have very little access to the countryside when hunters are enjoying their spring derogation- and a number of them shooting at anything that flies.

This means that Maltese families and their children are being deprived of enjoying nature in all its splendour. We are all entitled to enjoy the countryside, which belongs to us all and not just to a select few. This enjoyment is currently being obstructed by the spring hunting derogation which the Parliamentary parties have been defending continuously.  It is about time that we reclaimed our right to fully enjoy nature in spring, while simultaneously allowing birds to continue breeding.

A total of 41,494 citizens signed a petition which has resulted in the abrogative referendum that will be held on 11 April 2015. This is a unique opportunity to protect the birds and help re-establish our families’ links with nature during the spring.  Let us use this opportunity well by voting NO, thereby rejecting the regulations contained in the spring hunting derogation and consigning spring hunting in Malta to the dustbin of history.

article 9. derogation

 

published in the Independent – Sunday 18 January 2015