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