I hope that the debate about the spring hunting referendum does not descend into a sideshow about the definition of minorities, or into an absurd discussion in parliament about the unassailable human right to have a hobby, play bocci, go sailing or own a horse. Let’s not miss the wood for the trees.

The referendum is about spring hunting, which is not just the pastime of a so-called minority but is also an environmental issue in which everyone has an interest. The conservation of birds and biodiversity in general are definitely not the concern of a minority group. The law that the referendum seeks to abrogate was issued under the Environment Protection Act.

The odd protest rally that walked through Valletta to parliament this week, led by hunters and followed by karozzini owners and off-roaders, aims to restrict the democratic right of citizens to vote in abrogative referenda. This is profoundly wrong, whether you agree with spring hunting or not.

The petitioners are claiming that referendums should only be held on issues of national interest. Well, even if that were the case, the environment is certainly of national interest. More than that, the environment is of European and global interest. It couldn’t be broader. This is why the European Commission takes a keen interest in hunting and trapping practices, but is not as bothered about tennis, fireworks or karozzini.

The hunting and trapping of wild birds are fundamentally different to other pastimes or sports which might not be an environmental concern. They are activities which are regulated by the ministry for the environment, which speaks for itself, not by the ministry for culture or sports.

It is of course simpler to keep a firm grip over a handful of politicians, who might be persuaded to trade promises in exchange for votes and power, than it is to convince the public at large. So the petitioners want only politicians on stage. According to them, nobody else should be allowed a part in the drama.

In other words, the petitioners favour representative democracy which enables them to use their leverage over politicians, but are wary of direct democracy whereby voters get to decide on issues directly. Minority or no minority, this shows how important their hold over politicians must be, if evidence for this were necessary, and it is precisely why people have felt the need to take the decision on spring hunting out of parliament and into their own hands.

It would be outrageous for politicians to try to interfere with the democratic right to hold an abrogative referendum on spring hunting on the basis of viewing hunting as the interest of a minority group. The state of the environment is not only the interest and collective responsibility of the majority, it is the interest of each and every citizen.

The right for public participation in environmental decision-making is a basic and widely accepted principle. If a parliamentary debate on this petition is held, I hope that the minister for the environment will speak out without delay and defend the right of all citizens to voice their opinion and participate in environmental matters.

Let’s hope that politicians stay out of the referendum and do not attempt to turn it into yet another partisan contest between themselves, or to fan a debate about minorities as a smoke screen to side-track the referendum. We already know that both main political parties support limited spring hunting and that is all we need to know. At this point, the rest is for the voters to decide.

Petra Caruana Dingli is a Council Member of Din l-Art Helwa

This article appeared in the Malta Independent on Sunday on 8th June 2014