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Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Bill

Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill
Rahui Katene, MP for Te Tai Tonga
Wednesday 8 December 2010

I stand to speak on the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill.

I come to this bill with the disproportionate over-representation of Māori in our prisons weighing heavily upon me. Māori are over-represented at every end of the criminal justice sector, as both victims and offenders, in the areas of arrests, prosecutions, convictions, imprisonment, and reimprisonment. This over-representation must also be viewed in the context of a ballooning prison population—a population that we believe is neither financially nor socially sustainable in our nation.

A 2008 paper from Andrew Coyle from the International Centre for Prison Studies commented on Ministry of Justice forecasts that there would be a 15.6 percent increase over the next 7 years, with an estimated prison population of over 9,000 people. This puts New Zealand, so said Mr Coyle, on a par with Libya, Azerbaijan, and Brazil. This information then provides the context in which we come to this third reading of the bill to amend the Electoral Act 1993 by removing the right of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment for a term of less than 3 years to be able to register as an elector.

Currently the prison population is approximately 8,300 with Māori prisoners making up 50.66 percent of that, or 4,169 of that population. If we look at the possible numbers of those prisoners serving less than three years we are in the ball park of approximately 5,000 prisoners, the majority of these being Māori and Pasifika. These numbers and the gross disproportionate impact on whānau in Māori and Pasifika communities are serious enough in their own right, but it is the principle of democratic representation we want to raise in our final contribution on this debate.

I have to say it is deeply ironic that on the very day that the constitution review has been announced, and when in the current political environment issues such as the referendum, advanced voting, the electoral finance reform are being debated, that in the House we are doing something that is a direct attack on the right to vote.

Mr Quinn in his speech referred to the hysterical rantings of members and, presumably, of submitters. I want to bring to the House once more the advice of the “hysterical” New Zealand Law Society President, Jonathan Temm, who described this legislation as “retrograde legislation, which would erode the free and democratic nature of New Zealand society and without justification.”

I want to focus on this issue of justification. What is the justification that substantiates such a harsh and punitive bill? Is the vote of an inmate worth less than the vote of someone who is an offender but who has not yet been caught? What is the judgment being made when we deem it appropriate to remove the right to vote from prisoners? Will we see such an abuse of power similarly applied to a person who enters a voting booth under the influence of alcohol or an illicit substance? Will we cast that same judgment upon a voter who was a known paedophile, a fraudster, or a recidivist sexual offender? Quite frankly the gates will be flung wide open if we continue down this track of arbitrarily targeting certain sectors of our population whom we consider undesirable.

Like Mr Clendon, we looked at what the Attorney-General thought. He himself believes that the bill is “unjustifiably inconsistent with the electoral rights affirmed by section 12 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. But it was not just in our domestic legal context that the Attorney-General looked. He also concluded that article 25 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which New Zealand is a signatory, relates to blanket restrictions on the right of prisoners to vote.

So let us have another look at this. The Attorney-General is the chief law officer and primary legal adviser of the New Zealand Government. The Attorney-General has departmental responsibility for the Crown Law Office, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, and the Serious Fraud Office. It makes sense then that when the Attorney-General offers advice one would listen. Yet a list MP seemingly has more sway and more influence with the National Government, which is willing to follow his lead in establishing a partisan and biased approach to the broader issue of electoral democracy.

I listened to the speech of Mr Quinn this afternoon regarding the Māori Affairs Committee inquiry into the tobacco industry in Aotearoa. He expressed some very positive acknowledgements to our colleague Mr Harawira and the Māori Party for being in step with the key issues of the day. I was heartened by his kind words. So it defies belief that he can appreciate the value of inclusion and the importance of freedom of expression before the dinner break and then still proceed to bring this bill to its third reading after the dinner break.

As a lawyer I must admit that I take a passionate interest in the rule of law and the opportunities by which legislation can be enabling. I am committed to a legal system that is participatory, just, and fair. But if we were to listen to the views of Frances Joychild, a former law commissioner, we would see that this bill fails to meet the mark. In her presentation to the Rule of Law conference earlier this year, she told participants that the member’s bill should not be enacted. She said “It is not demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society as it is arbitrary, unfair, disproportionate, and impairs the right to vote more than is reasonably necessary. It poses an unwarranted threat to the health, strength, and cohesion of our democratic system of government upon which we all rely to live in harmony, peace, and prosperity. It should not be enacted.”

The Māori Party is astonished that this bill can be supported as good policy, let alone worth of entry into the statute book. We believe the right to vote is exactly that; not a privilege or a luxury afforded to those citizens we deem as acceptable. We have some appreciation for the analysis raised by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986, namely that punishment for a serious crime might properly involve a further forfeiture of rights such as the right to vote. But the Commission rejected any suggestion that such restrictions should be applied as a blanket ban on all prisoners.

We do not support this bill and we are extremely sad that at enactment the precious right of voting will be another punishment levelled on people already bearing the costs of the punishment they have been served during the court process. It is unjustifiable, it is arbitrary, and it is outright targeting of a sector of the population in way we cannot abide.


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