Sociologist from Malta

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Analysing the hunting referendum and campaigns in Malta

The pro-hunting Yes camp was more successful in mobilizing people to go out and vote, as was evident from the turnout figures for the pro-hunting districts.

The Joseph Muscat factor could not be ignored. His statement two weeks ago during a political activity in Qala had an effect in favour of the yes campaign.

The No campaign too easily dismissed the European Court of Justice Ruling in 2009, which condemned Malta on one hand but also left a window of opportunity open.

The No camp was mistaken when it insisted upon minimising the importance of the court's decision, which essentially put the ball in Malta's court again.

However, although the No camp may be disappointed by the result, the 49 per cent is not bad at all and it has significant long-term ramnifications for the environment.

Some environmentalists may lose heart but it may also embolden the green movement, in its broad sense, because it shows there is a significant base of voters interested in environmental issues.

The result will not spell the end of the hunting issue, just like a No victory would not have closed the matter forever.

There are still conservation arguments to be made and cases of abuse will definately crop up that will continue to stimulate the debate

I gave these comments to The Times of Malta, and they featured in the article by Kim Dalli entitled 'No campaign outflanked by hunters' slick and well-funded fight for votes' (April 14, 2015)

The Campaigns and their impacts (featured in the Times, 13 April: )

I will look into the impacts of the spring hunting referendum campaigns. For this purpose, I refer to concepts used in scholarly literature on social movements, namely sensitising impacts, procedural impacts, structural impacts and substantive impacts.

By means of sensitising impacts, one refers to the raising of public awareness. This may include influencing public opinion and political party agendas and could involve the press, public campaigns, protests and so forth.

Both the Yes and No camps have managed to raise awareness on their respective positions.

In the past 20 years or so, the hunters’ lobby managed to raise the awareness of respective governments and main political parties in Malta and, especially, of certain sections of the Maltese-speaking press.

Environmentalists and Greens, on the other hand, raised awareness especially within the English-speaking press and also managed to sensitise European institutions.

The referendum campaign represented the peak of such sensitisation. If one simply looked at letters in the press, one could feel an increased sense of civil engagement by people beyond the partisanship that often characterises other issues.

Procedural impacts, on the other hand, refer to increased participation of social movements in decision-making structures such as governmental institutions. Organisations may be formally recognised, may be involved in negotiations and could be consulted by governmental structures.

Structural impacts are very much related to procedural impacts and deal with changes in State structures, political institutions as well as the formation of alliances. The formation of the Yes and No referendum campaigns were clear examples of structural impacts by each respective side.

Taking a step back, one can also look at structural and procedural changes that took place in Malta, especially in relation to EU accession. In itself, Malta’s accession provided an opportunity for environmentalists and Greens to raise their grievances at the European level. Birdlife Malta – the most prominent environmental NGO in this regard – clearly relied on its European counterpart and it also benefited from the lobbying of other European ENGOs.

The Maltese government also created the Ornis Committee, featuring representation from the different camps, institutionalising Birdlife and hunters’ organisations within official consultation structures. Yet such institutionalisation did not result in toothless co-option. Indeed, both sides remained vociferous in their claims and have never shied away from criticising respective governments when they deemed fit to do so.

The constant lobbying and the creation of monitoring camps by Maltese and European ENGOs also meant that there was a strong presence by civil society.

Nature conservation sites – often forming part of EU programmes – were managed by ENGOs and, like their adversaries, they benefited from State funding.

The European Commission gave legitimacy to ENGOs through consultation, as did the European Parliament when it endorsed calls for Malta’s conformity with EU legislation. The European Green Party, in particular, was active on this matter.

On the other hand, hunters had the support of certain political quarters, including different Maltese MEPs and from within the European Peoples’ Party and also from the hunters’ federation at a European level.

Substantive impacts, on the other hand, refer to the acquisition of power in terms of policymaking. This may take place through legislation, implementation and enforcement.

Malta’s EU accession was meant to provide this in itself, through the Birds Directive, which prohibits hunting of birds in spring. This superseded national legislation and was in line with the conservationist discourse of environmentalists in order to preserve bird species.

Yet despite this development, enforcement against hunting irregularities was weak and respective governments were criticised by environmentalists for under-reporting when presenting official data to the EU.

To complicate matters further, the ruling by the European Court of Justice on Malta’s situation was given different interpretations by different sides. As I noted in my article in Times of Malta last Monday, this brought the hunting issue back to the realm of national politics within a European context.

The referendum result can be seen as the ultimate substantive impact on the hunting issue in Malta.

Yet will this mean that the hunting issue is now dead and buried? Will the adversaries respect the democratic outcome and stop campaigning on the matter, as was the case with the (non-abrogative) divorce and European referenda?

I don’t think there is a definite answer to this question. Social movement activism and political opportunities go hand in hand. And while some issues experience what seems to be a natural death, others keep coming back.

Further references:

Road to The Referendum

Bird Hunting in European Malta: A Case of ENGO Empowerment?

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