The position taken by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on the hunting referendum is incredible in its contradictions and shocking to the point of scandalous.

It goes to show to what shambles Labour has been reduced to under his helm in order to sell itself for votes and how quickly it is prepared to betray people who show their trust in it.

In announcing the date of the referendum, April 11, an uncomfortable Muscat said he wanted to make clear that he was in favour of spring hunting: “I am consistent with my position and I have an electoral mandate.”

Three times Muscat admitted his position on spring hunting was not popular, an indication that he fears the referendum will pass. Then he said: “My job here is not to be popular but to follow the electoral mandate I was personally given.”

And there was the catch, the disingenuousness of his statement. It was not a “personal” mandate that was given to him in the 2013 election. No matter what the Prime Minister’s wife may think in her fictitious role as a self-proclaimed first lady, her husband is not an executive president.

He does not have a personal mandate but that of the Labour Party, which, in its electoral programme, promised to guarantee spring hunting. The whole parliamentary group is bound by that mandate.

In giving his MPs a ‘free vote’, ridiculous as that may sound when this is a referendum and not a parliamentary vote, Muscat’s strategy is pathetically clear. It is only a matter of time now that some senior Labourite, possibly one of his own ministers, will step forward and take a stand against spring hunting. Like that, Labour can try to reach out to environmentalists and literally sit on both sides of the fence.

Muscat argued with a straight face that it should be civil society that leads the debate on spring hunting and not political parties.

This is gross coming from a party leader who politicised hunting and exploited it so much to get into power.

With his reference to civil society, Muscat is paying lip service to those who naively think that politics can be kept out of the hunting referendum. This issue is totally political.

Muscat knows he will get the blame from hunters if the referendum gets through because the spring hunting ban would have happened under his watch. He has a lot to lose. This is the albatross around his neck.

Muscat is behaving as though this were the divorce referendum all over again. It is not. Divorce was not in the Nationalist or Labour parties’ political programme.

No party had a mandate to introduce it and a free vote made sense. This does not apply to spring hunting.

The Labour Party parliamentary group is obliged to implement a policy that ‘guarantees’ spring hunting. That is what they wrote and endorsed in their programme.

Guaranteeing spring hunting logically includes campaigning in favour of it in a referendum because Labour MPs owe their parliamentary seats to that mandate. To do otherwise is to betray the voters who put them there.

It is their duty to campaign in favour and that is exactly Muscat’s dilemma.

Clearly, now that the referendum is to be held in conjunction with local council elections, the hunters’ plan of boycotting the referendum so that the necessary 50 per cent plus threshold would probably fail. Any plans they may have had to organise picket lines outside the voting booths will not work now either.

Following the constitutional court’s judgment, Muscat has found himself standing on the wrong side of the fence, knowing the electorate is against him. He is in the incredible position of siding with the hunters’ lobby that actually claims that a referendum is anti-democratic.

This is what happens when you promise everything to everyone, no matter how contradictory it may be

For all his liberalism, Muscat is on the wrong side of history, which is exactly the criticism he so much liked to level against the PN following the divorce referendum. It was he who allied himself with hunters; now he must pay the price.

His party is to blame for the arrogance of hunters, particularly in wake of the 2013 election, and the bird massacre that ensued in celebration of Labour’s victory. Only the hunters know what Labour promised them behind closed doors before the election. The hunters’ reaction, sometimes violent, to any attempt to control their excesses, is indicative enough of what Labour promised them to win power. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

The hunters are being betrayed. Seeing them as a liability, Muscat has thrown them under the bus, extending only his personal, token support but not that of his party. Not that we should feel sorry for them but their betrayal does tell a lot about Labour and Muscat.

Muscat cannot square this circle to reach those middle class, liberal voters, who put their trust in him in the last election but can’t stand hunters holding our diminishing countryside at ransom.

That is what happens when you promise everything to everyone, no matter how contradictory it may be.

That is what happens when you vote Labour; you do not know when you are suddenly going to become expendable.

Muscat’s position is a retreat of the worst kind because it is guided by opportunism and populism. His is a government by calculator. If the populist vote turns against you and you are suddenly a liability, you’re dumped, just like the hunters.

With a government and prime minister of this sort, the country is rudderless and everything is in flux. You do not know what to expect the next day because the government may change its mind, whatever it may have promised. Nothing is cast in stone.

Yet, there is still a little room for optimism, remote as it may sound.

Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil made a bold, courageous move last week. He discarded the albatross around his own neck that had been clogging him down. He did it unceremoniously, uncompromisingly and in a determined fashion that we hope is a sign of things to come.

There was no way he was ever going to win the next election with the faces he had around him.

They may have been the best ministers in the world, which they were not, but they were all past their use-by date. They had to go and the fact that he could do it in one fell swoop shows how much he is in control of his party. There is hope.

Anyone who watched Busuttil’s press conference announcing his new shadow Cabinet saw a changed man. He showed determination that verged on defiance.

Yes, the odds are all stacked up against him come the next election but he certainly does not come across as someone who would walk away quietly into the night without a fight.

The new PN faces leave room for optimism. Busuttil is promising an opposition that is formidable, serious and strong “like never before”. That is a tall order but the good thing is that people will be willing to forgive the initial blunders of his new frontbenchers because they are new and, above all, they belong to the new PN that Busuttil must create within three years to stand a sporting chance at the next election.

Many are writing the PN off already. Busuttil challenges that.

When asked why he was holding a press conference alone and not flanked by his new shadow Cabinet, Busuttil said: “I take responsibility for this. I took this decision and I carry it.”

The assertiveness of that statement was astounding. Strangely, despite his stress on teamwork, in reply to another question, he did admit that there are situations where you must take your decisions alone.

It is the mark of a true leader, who has just shed his albatross.

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