Referendum: Shock is an understatement

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All post-referendum debates on the subject were very below par and simply irritated me by their repetitious content. All of them, in my view, treated the audience as if it was comprised of mere idiots and I could not find anything truly thoughtful in any of the shouting, gloating or verbal attacks from either camp. Frankly, if we are to mature politically, we must start looking beyond this type of approach that is turning more and more people away from politics as practiced today. There are simply too many very important and far-reaching lessons that need to be learnt from last week’s decisive exercise – lessons which, I fear, have so far not been taken on board with the seriousness they merit. How many people noticed, for instance, that something for which we have long been waiting – a serious break-through in the two-party system that has shackled the Maltese voter for years – has finally happened? Before I carry on writing, I want to stress that I wish to keep to an absolutely logical analysis rather than make this an emotional and therefore ‘colour blind’ examination of the referendum. This is not a study in order to show favour (or otherwise) of the actual result itself, it is purely to see if the Maltese voter can learn from the gains that he/she has just, perhaps unknowingly, already achieved from the referendum. • To the best of my knowledge, this is the first abrogative referendum ever to have taken place under Maltese Constitutional law. For the first time in independent, sovereign, Republic of Malta’s history, it is the people themselves (and not our political class) who have worked directly for something in which they believed and actually made it happen.

 

Of note, the word “abrogative” means the power to repeal or do away with a law. So in this case, not only did the Maltese people themselves voice an opinion but they actually took back the real power to potentially change Maltese law directly and not just recommend a change to the politicians. To my mind, this first – the fact that the people managed to wrestle away real power back from “the chosen few”, half way through a government’s legislature – cannot be emphasised too strongly. Through this real experience, common people now know that when “the people” wish to wield the real power, there is a perfectly democratic tool that can be employed against any imposition by the few. This is a hugely historical moment, never actually achieved before. But it has now opened the gates for more far-reaching and democratic change to happen. Used properly, this first breakthrough is, in effect, a great opportunity for the people themselves to understand that they can cause real and effective democratic change without having to kow-tow to the elite or abide by its decisions. Albeit with certain exceptions, instead of just accepting the need to wait for five years in order to just vote for “the lesser of two evils”, people can now look more carefully at what the political class is doing on their behalf and repeal anything that goes against their wishes or that actually works against them. In this respect, the political class itself has as much to learn from this referendum as the common people and it should immediately consider changing how it presently conducts its business. Regrettably, however, it is probably too arrogant to even consider the new position that it now finds itself in, let alone act on it.

 

A referendum per se should be pure, raw and perfect democracy at its best. Theoretically, a referendum should be a way by which a government asks the people for their opinion and not for the government to push its own opinion on them. Of course, the government – or, indeed, any other body – has every right to speak its mind freely. I would be the first to defend that right unequivocally. But it is one thing to give an opinion and then to let the people come to their own conclusion – just like the Archbishop and other eminent people did. It is another, however, to blatantly militate, be directly/indirectly involved or even seem to run a campaign for one side of a people’s referendum.

 

Again, the result of the  referendum itself is also quite interesting. It does not demonstrate any clear, outstanding win or loss – as in the general election itself. With just 2,220 votes on the winning side, 1,111 votes going the other way (or 86 votes in each district) would have given a different result. In truth, what should have been a relatively safe win for one side actually turned into a loss, albeit by a mere whisker. Much analysis has been carried out as how or why this happened. My personal conclusions were that: The ‘Yes’ camp was far more organised than the ‘No’ camp. Its message was based on two strong points: that they were defending a hobby/tradition and that “today it is us, tomorrow it will be you”. These two points were accepted as valid points even outside the hunting community. It worked brilliantly. Hats off! The ‘No’ camp was clearly divided internally and in several ways. It did not focus on the main agenda. Personalities clearly clashed publically and some even managed to push people away and vote the other way, I am told. The message of the ‘No’ camp was not as clear as it should have been. It was weak, incoherent and inconsistent. The ‘No’ camp fantastically and repeatedly kept shooting itself in the foot by dropping huge clangers. Releasing polls showing a seven per cent lead just before the referendum voting was clearly one of those bad decisions. It must surely have contributed to a lower voting turn out as people took victory for granted. • However, whatever the strategies and the outcome, there is a final and possibly the most important lesson that must be taken on board. Both sides accepted the rules laid out for the referendum and both agreed to abide by the democratic mechanism and the legally-binding result. The referendum was won by those wishing to retain spring hunting under a specific set of rules. The other side has accepted the will of the majority. In this respect, we have surely matured, as there are no signs to the contrary and the result has been accepted by all. For the Prime Minister himself, however, a new era in his reign has started. It is no longer a matter of ‘just another day’ for the Progressive Liberals. It is a matter of ‘brand new day’. And far different one to what he is used to, I suspect. In his own words, this referendum was “the absolute last chance for spring hunting”, the “result was no reason to break the law” and that he would close spring hunting if there was any abuse, as he has done in the past. Clearly, the Prime Minister has personally now committed himself – in front of everyone – to respect the rules, the regulations and the will of both sides of the referendum. He is responsible for ensuring that, in this respect, the law and his promise are upheld to the letter. The referendum dictates that spring hunting will continue only if all parties abide by the specific set of rules and that is what is now expected. In reality, therefore, it is not only the hunters who are being given a “final chance”. The Prime Minister himself is also being given a “final chance” to show that he has truly heard the people in this regard, to prove that he is capable and mature enough to keep this promise that he has given to all the people. This ‘brand new day ‘ translates into an absolute commitment that in future no abuse by anyone will be tolerated with regard to spring hunting. From now on, it is not only the Prime Minister’s duty but his actions and his reputation that are at stake and I have no doubt they will continue to be carefully and continually scrutinised for any repeat of his past broken promises and performances. The people have learnt a very valuable lesson from this referendum. From now on, imposition by the few over the people is no longer the only way forward. It is no longer acceptable. The people can regroup at any time and use democratic (collective) power against the few, if necessary. It is a time of real awakening, a time of change in our political mentality if the opportunity is grasped. This is too important an issue for us to allow it to be taken away once again or forgotten. And if the PM does not get his act together with regard to spring hunting, if anyone does not abide by the rules by which we all play, Alleanza Bidla is hereby committing itself to start working immediately for a second abrogative referendum to take place as soon as the law permits. People are no longer happy to be treated as mere defenceless sheep with no viable way out when others do not keep their word. We certainly do not have to accept any imposition that we do not like for the rest of any legislature. The polls are showing a clear decline in trust in the leaders of the two major parties, indicating that we have had enough of the old way. The people are speaking once again, saying that they deserve better than mere sales pitch, hot air and a pat on the head.

First published in The Malta Independent on 19/04/15