NEWS | Sunday, 30 December 2007

A shot in the foot

2007 was also the year when the tide finally turned against Malta’s previously all-powerful hunting lobby… but, Raphael Vassallo writes, not necessarily for long

History, much like Christmas TV, has a habit of repeating itself.
Last week, Azzjoni Nazzjonali leader Dr Josie Muscat addressed a press conference to announce that Malta’s youngest political party had entered into a contractual agreement with the federation of hunters and trappers’ associations (FKNK).
The contract, which can be viewed online, comprises no fewer than 17 individual pledges to Maltese hunters and trappers. Many of these – like the promise of spring hunting in 2008, or the continued use of electronic lures and other mechanical devices – are illegal under the 1979 Birds Directive.
Answering a direct question last Sunday, Dr Muscat said that he wouldn’t rule out suspending Malta’s membership in the EU if the hunters’ demands were not met. It seems, therefore, that the hard-fought battle for EU membership is not quite over yet: the threat of a possible withdrawal from the Union will still cast a shadow over Elections 2008.
For those who have followed more than a decade of intensive lobbying by the hunting community, AN’s announcement last week came accompanied by an unmistakable feeling of déjà vu. Shortly before the 1996 elections, it was the Labour Party’s environment spokesman George Vella who secured a similar backstreet deal with the hunters: setting in the process a pattern that would be repeated, with only minor variations, before each of the subsequent three general elections: 1998, 2003, and now 2008.
In all these cases, the individual terms were most likely dictated by the hunters themselves, and the politicians who signed on the dotted line must have known that very few, if any, were actually achievable in practice. Incredibly, though, the hunters took the bait each and every single time, only to lash out with increasing anger with each inevitable betrayal. As we enter the second decade of an interminable saga, it is time to put the chronology of events into some kind of perspective.

Alas, poor Stanley
The story of the self-deceiving Maltese hunting community begins a little earlier: in 1994, when Nationalist MP Dr Stanley Zammit, in preparation for eventual EU membership, put forward a number of proposals which would have spelt an end to hunting in spring.
It was the first major revolution since 1980, when Prime Minister Dom Mintoff introduced the Protection of Birds Ordinance to regulate a previously all-but unregulated pastime. But times had now changed, and what was tolerated under Labour was simply unacceptable from the PN. The response was immediate and unequivocal –the FKNK took its gun-toting members to the streets in an unsightly show of force straight out of the OK Corrall.
By a huge coincidence – which obviously had nothing to do with the hunters – numerous historical and archaeological sites were vandalised the following day. Someone, no doubt an environmentalist agent-provocateur, scrawled the words “Namur jew intajru” on the floor of Hagar Qim. Efforts to establish which “namur”, or “pastime”, was being cited as an excuse to blow up the temple have since proved futile.
But if there was any slogan tailor-made for then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami – a man who had sailed into power in 1987 on a slogan of his own, “Is-Sewwa Jirbah Zgur” – it was the one that featured on the front page of most of the island’s newspapers: “10,000 members = 10,000 votes”.
Quite forgetting his earlier claim that justice shall always prevail, Fenech Adami promptly bowed to the hunters’ pressure and withdrew Zammit’s proposals: sacrificing in the process his brave but ultimately dispensable parliamentary secretary on the altar of the God of Lost Votes.
The same Fenech Adami went on to promise us a “new spring”; but in reality what we were given was a new spring hunting season… and Stanley Zammit, shot down in 1995, became its first casualty.

A vote in the bag
Fast-forward three years – two of which were characterised by the Alfred Sant administration of 1996-1998 – and by this time, the Nationalist Party had learnt much from Labour’s successful manipulation of the hunting lobby. They learnt, for instance, that a hunter’s vote in the bag is worth a mightily deceived European Union, at least for as long as the deception can be upheld. So in an uncanny repetition of history, two names you may well be familiar with – Eddie Fenech Adami and then PN general secretary, Lawrence Gonzi – once again made a pact with the FKNK just a week before the 1998 election: promising, among other things, that the hunting laws would not change as a result of EU accession.
Again, it was an untenable promise in the context of EU membership. But this didn’t stop the present government from trying to keep it. Once in power, the Nationalists went on to negotiate a special exemption from the Birds Directive – or so they claimed, at any rate – to permit limited hunting in spring: a practice which is expressly banned by European law.
On closer inspection, however, it turned out that the so-called “special exemption” on spring hunting, announced with much fanfare on the front page of the Malta EU Information Centre’s publication “Aggornat” in 2003, consisted in nothing more than a generic acknowledgement that Malta, just like any other member state, is free to apply for a derogation under the terms of Article 9.
Strangely, though, the same government failed to actually apply for any such derogation regarding hunting or trapping in any of the four years since accession. Not only that, but the government also failed to send in its report on turtle-dove and quail hunting by spring 2004, as agreed. Similarly, its commitments to compile a full register of trapping sites, and to set up a captive breeding programme for finches – both of which were conditions for the derogation on trapping, which expires on 31 December 2008 – were not met in time for accession, as stipulated in the treaty.

Hell hath no fury…
In the end, it took the hunters no less than nine years to realise that they had been repeatedly duped by both major political parties. And when they woke up to the smell of a kacca-free spring cappuccino, their fury was simply uncontainable.
Matters came to a head last March, when Environment Minister George Pullicino failed to announce the dates for the opening of the 2007 spring hunting season, as ordered to by the FKNK.
Another repeat performance, this time of the unsightly protests we now associate with a long forgotten era. An estimated 7,000 hunters thronged Republic Street on Wednesday 7 March, taunting George Pullicino and – somewhat bizarrely, given the circumstances that had brought them to this pass – pledging their support to the Malta Labour Party. What followed was characterised by flying bottles, police in riot gear, journalists assaulted, hunters arrested… in a word, a fiasco.
And yet, hours into the protest, the spring hunting season dates were finally announced; although to be fair, by this time the Nationalist government had evidently tired of the hunting lobby’s unreasonable behaviour, and some weeks later – after the umpteenth massacre of protected birds – Prime Minister Gonzi peremptorily announced the premature closing of the hunting season for spring 2007.

The turning of the tide
In the end, and despite AN’s regrettable decision to tread down the same path, 2007 may well have been a watershed year for an increasingly vocal majority who would like to see hunting finally curtailed.
The March protest signalled the first occasion since 1980 when pressure applied by the FKNK did not translate into the government immediately capitulating to their every demand. In tandem with growing antipathy towards the hunters’ behaviour, 2007 also saw the concretisation of an increasingly demanding (and pale blue) environmentalist lobby. Its combined muscle eventually resulted in a previously unthinkable victory: the reversal of a MEPA decision to allow development in Ramla l-Hamra.
Added to the fact that the European Commission has finally lost patience with the Maltese government, and will no doubt take it to the European Courts of Justice if it persists in opening the spring hunting season again in 2008, the wind now appears to be blowing from a slightly different direction.
Whether Josie Muscat will manage to swing the balance of power back into the FKNK’s favour remains to be seen.


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