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NEWS | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

From power brokers to embarrassment...

The hunting lobby reached its zenith during the 1996 and 1998 elections when it signed binding pacts with both major parties. But has EU membership divested hunters of their ability to dictate terms to political parties? JAMES DEBONO on the demise of the hunting lobby

The hunting lobby’s first incursion into the political minefield was in reaction to Dom Mintoff’s attempt to regulate the previously free-for-all pastime through the Protection of Birds Ordinance in the 1980s. For the first time, hunters expressed themselves by taking to the streets with their shotguns, cages and paramilitary attire. To appease them, Labour handed over the Mizieb and l-Ahrax grounds to the hunting lobby.
In its 1987 electoral manifesto Labour boasted of having “succeeded in instilling in the minds of hunters and trappers the need for a closed season,” while handing over land to hunters “where the hunter looks after the place where he indulges in his hobby.”
After the change in government in 1987, the MLP started warming up to the hunting lobby with former Labour leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici declaring that the hunting pastime as God’s gift to the poor before the 1992 election.
Labour’s attempt to seduce hunters sharply contrasted with the natural alliance between the hunting lobby and the conservative rightwing on the continent. Yet it was under the Alfred Sant leadership that Labour managed to clinch an unholy alliance with the hunting lobby.
In 1994, parliamentary secretary for the environment Dr Stanley Zammit put forward a number of proposals which would have spelt an end to hunting in spring. The response was immediate – the FKNK took its gun-toting members to the streets in a mighty show of force. As the hunters vented their anger in the streets, numerous historical and archaeological sites were vandalised and the words “Namur jew intajru” were memorably scrawled on the floor of Hagar Qim.
And to underline their power to blackmail the government, an FKNK newspaper advert proclaimed that “10,000 members = 10,000 votes”.
The message was understood. Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami promptly bowed to the hunters’ pressure and toned down Zammit’s proposals. Zammit did not even manage to get elected in the subsequent election. But his sacrifice on the altar of political convenience was not enough to quench the hunters’ growing taste for power.

Hunters’ triumph
A few days before the election Labour deputy leader George Vella secured a deal with hunters to overturn the already diluted legislation introduced in 1994. The deal paid off and Labour was elected to government, putting Malta’s application to join the European Union on freeze.
On the eve of the 1998 election it was then the PN secretary-general Lawrence Gonzi who signed 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.
The PN’s 1998 manifesto solemnly promised that “no changes which negatively affect hunters and trappers will be made to the current regulations on hunting and trapping.”
Before the 2003 referendum the government applied for a derogation from the Birds Directive, the EU’s law against spring hunting, under the terms of Article 9. This right was specified in the Accession Treaty on Malta’s insistence in 2003. Hunters were repeatedly reassured that this was a guarantee that hunting in spring would continue.
With this reassurance in mind the hunting lobby refrained from taking a position in the fateful EU referendum and the subsequent election which determined Malta’s entry in the European Union.
For the first time in its history the hunting lobby presented a candidate in the 2004 elections for the European Parliament. But FKNK President Lino Farrugia only managed to garner 3,000-odd votes, dispelling the image of a hunting lobby that can hold the two major parties at ransom each time an election is due.
The hunting lobby’s neutrality in the EU referendum also left the Labour Party bitter.
“The government is basically following what it negotiated,” Sant said when asked about his position on hunting in 2005. We had warned before the election that what the Nationalist Party was promising could not materialise. Irrespective of whether one agrees with hunting or trapping, one has to admit that hunters and trappers have been deceived.”

The downfall
Matters came to a head in March 2007, when Environment Minister George Pullicino failed to announce the dates for the opening of the spring hunting season. An estimated 7,000 hunters thronged Republic Street on 7 March, taunting George Pullicino with some of them pledging their support to the Malta Labour Party. The protest degenerated when journalists were assaulted and some hunters arrested.
And yet, hours into the protest, the spring hunting season dates were finally announced; only to be stopped abruptly by Pullicino ten days before the closing date following the massacre of hundreds of protected birds.
It was a clear message that the hunting lobby’s tactics were becoming an embarrassment for both major parties. Parties also responded to surveys showing the majority of the Maltese turning their backs on the hunting community.
A survey by Mario Vassallo in the Sunday Times in 2006 showed that two-thirds of the Maltese opposed hunting in spring. Another survey conducted by MaltaToday in 2007 showed that the majority agreed with the European Commission initiating infringement procedures against Malta for allowing hunting in spring. Even in rural and conservative Gozo, 44% favoured a hunting ban in spring and only 37% opposed it, a MaltaToday survey in 2006 showed.
Despite mounting dissatisfaction among hunters, Labour refrained from taking up the hunters’ cause in the 2008 election. And the PN still scraped through to win the election despite alienating the hunting lobby. The only party to sign a pact with hunters was the right wing Azzjoni Nazzjonali which only scored a dismal 0.6% of the vote.
And to further underline the weakness of the hunters’ lobby Edward Demicoli – a candidate for the PN in next June’s European election has taken a leaf out of Alternattiva Demokratika’s book calling for the end of spring hunting.



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