Until Alternattiva Demokratika announced the abrogative referendum campaign on spring hunting almost two years ago, few Maltese citizens were aware that they had such a right. Now that this right has been used for the first time since it has been placed on the statute book, it is apparently under threat.
The hunters’ lobby is now aiming at curtailing the right to an abrogative referendum. The hunters maintain that when the Referenda Act was applied in trying to abrogate the regulations permitting spring hunting it was aiming at their rights – “minority rights” they said.
Hunters had presented these same arguments though their representatives for the consideration of the Constitutional Court, which shot them down last January. In fact the Constitutional Court in paragraphs 51 to 54 of its 24-page decision, considers this very point. The hunters, said the Constitutional Court, claim that their rights are minority rights. However no potential breach of a provision of the Constitution of Malta or of the European Convention of Human Rights have been indicated in their submissions. The Constitutional Court goes on to say the following :
“It is right to emphasise that in implementing majority rule the rights of the minority should be respected. However this respect is not attained, as suggested by the Federation [FKNK] by obstructing people from expressing themselves through a referendum.” [Tassew illi d-dritt tal-maġġoranza għandu jitwettaq b’rispett lejn id-dritt tal-minoranza, iżda dan ir-rispett ma jinkisibx billi, kif trid il-Federazzjoni, il-poplu ma jitħalliex isemma’ leħnu f’referendum.]
This same argument was also the subject of a petition to Parliament organised by the hunters’ lobby and presented in Parliament by Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon some months ago. In recent days, comments have been made indicating that shortly we may be hearing of the government’s reactions to this petition. These reactions will most probably be in the form of proposals for amendments to the Referenda Act of 1973, in particular amendments to the provisions regulating the holding of an abrogative referendum – provisions which were originally approved by Parliament in 1996 and brought in force in 1998.
The provisions of the Referenda Act in Malta providing for the holding of an abrogative referendum are already very restrictive. From what has been stated, hunters want such provisions to be even more restrictive. In this sense they have already made public a proposal that a definite time window within which signatures for an abrogative referendum have to be collected has to be established. In Italian legislation, for example, there exists a 90-day window within which the collection of signatures has to be carried out. Such a time window may be a reasonable proposal within the Italian legal system, but then in Italy the number of voter signatures required to trigger the abrogative referendum process is proportionately much lower than that required in Malta.
The number of signatures required to kick-start the abrogative referendum process in Malta is 10 per cent of the registered voters. This currently stands at slightly under 34,000 signatures. In Italy, by contrast, half-a-million signatures – or the consent of five regional councils – is required. The number of signatures required in Italy amount to approximately one per cent of the electorate, meaning that the corresponding requirement in Malta is ten times as much!
I will not speculate over how the government will seek to translate the hunters’ petition into legislation. I have limited myself to one specific proposal.
It is still unclear as to what type of amendments to the Referenda Act will be submitted by government. One thing is, however, very clear: we need to keep our eyes wide open to ensure that our rights are not reduced.
The abrogative referendum is an important tool in our democratic society, even though it has been made use of only once in its 19-year existence. Let us hope that government will not succumb to pressures to have it diluted or removed.
published in The Malta Indpendent on Sunday : 19 April 2015