As soon as the hunting referendum result was out, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made one of those speeches that will probably be remembered for some time. The speech has been interpreted in different ways across the social spectrum.

In my view, there were two key statements in Muscat’s speech.

First, addressing hunters, he gave a stern warning that this is their “last chance” and that his government will not tolerate illegalities and abuse.

My reading of this is that Muscat wanted to give the impression that he has not sold his political soul to the hunting lobby, particularly when many attributed his role in the referendum campaign as being determinant with regard to the final result.

The argument is that Muscat’s intervention in the campaign seemed to give a final push to hunters, something no survey could predict. Indeed, scientific surveys represent a snapshot of a particular moment. They are not prophetic tools. They analyse generic trends but they cannot predict singular moments of great importance. And politics is full of such moments.

Hence, through his post-referendum speech, Muscat performed a show of strength, using tough language to address hunters, thus asserting his authority. The growing strength of Malta’s environmental movement (in the broad sense of the term) probably gave him further reason to use such language.

This part of Muscat’s speech is of special importance when, from a political perspective, it is quite clear that Labour and the hunting lobby are mutually dependent. Labour banks on hunters’ votes; hunters’ organisations depend on Labour’s support.

In turn, this provides political opportunities with respect to environmentalism.

In the rest of the legislature, Labour could carry out an environmentalist turn that wins the support of those organisations and voters who give importance to environmental issues. This would fit in Labour’s ‘politics without adversaries’ approach, which, so far, is reaping electoral results but which could eventually implode, though nothing is impossible in politics.

The Nationalist Party, on the other hand, may opt to remain cautious and bland in this area but could also decide to portray itself as the safest and most realistic bet for the environmental vote.

One should be wary of having an entire environmental movement becoming institutionalised

Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party could attract increased support for the more radicalised of environmentalists or those who are disillusioned with the main political parties in terms of environmental policy. But, here, one has to keep in mind that, like other parties, AD is not a single-issue party and its positions on other issues and its strategy have to be taken into consideration too.

Even though voters are empowered to elect AD to Parliament, one simply cannot ignore the fact that it is competing against two electoral giants and the accompanying dilemma of whether voting for a third party is a worthy investment. Still, AD’s main political contribution, even as an extra-parliamentary party, is often that of a catalyst with respect to many issues.

Another phenomenon that could crop up, and Labour’s Marlene Pullicino and Godfrey Farrugia have hinted about it, is having certain MPs sponsoring specific environmental campaigns. This happened in the past when, for example, Robert Arrigo championed the grievances of Qui-si-Sana residents and when Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando campaigned against some development proposals.

Previous legislatures also saw the formation of broad alliances on specific environmental issues, which included environmental NGOs, political parties (or individual representatives) and also support by local councils and civil society. One successful example in this regard was the Front Against the Rabat Golf Course, between 1999 and 2004.

One should also note that, in elections, the environment competes with other issues and considerations. It is not as influential as, say, government performance. However, the number of voters who give relatively strong weighting to the environment are growing. The prospects of winning or losing votes on environmental issues – as was the case with divorce and LGBT issues – should not be underestimated.

Hence, Muscat’s warning to hunters can be read in terms of the various windows of opportunities that exist in the environmental sphere.

Another interesting statement by Muscat was his appeal for increased negotiation in environmental policy. He appealed for antagonists to act like partners in a spirit of dialogue.

In theory, this could result in ‘agonism’, where adversaries acknowledge their differences but are willing to dialogue in a spirit of democracy, or institutionalisation, where organisations are co-opted into State structures while losing their critical edge.

However, there could also be interplay between these two poles. Hence, different organisations can participate in State structures without resorting to toothless co-option. If anything, both Birdlife and the hunters’ federation (FKNK) have shown they are both able to participate in governmental structures while speaking up vociferously when need be.

Still, one should be wary of having an entire environmental movement becoming institutionalised. Moderate environmentalism is essential to negotiate, to construct policy and to have a formal say. But radical environmentalism is essential to maintain the critical spirit alive and to come up with ideas that may be radical today but mainstream tomorrow.

This year happens to mark the 10th anniversary of the passing away of Julian Manduca, one of the stalwarts of Malta’s environmental movement. Issues that were deemed ‘radical’ when he was active in the field – such as waste management and overdevelopment – have become top environmental concerns today.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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