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For the last few months a silly and spiteful private members Bill sponsored by National MP Paul Quinn has been working its way through the system. In essence, this legislation will deny the right to vote to anyone who is in jail. The Attorney-General Chris Finlayson has already reported on the various ways in which Quinn’s initiative would violate the New Zealand Bill of Rights. Regardless, the Law and Order select committee has just reported back. Alas, the National/Act majority on the committee has just recommended that this hopelessly flawed Bill should proceed.
For the last fortnight I’ve been preparing a fuller article about the Quinn Bill for the next edition of Werewolf, due on Monday. Suffice to say there are many problems with what Quinn is proposing. Since the early 1990s, New Zealand has removed the right to vote from everyone in prison for more than three years. The Quinn Bill now goes the whole hog, and extends the ban to everyone in jail. The Attorney-General has pointed out some of the basic injustices this creates: eg, someone on home detention for the same offence can vote, but someone in jail can’t.
Essentially, the random chances of timing – which have nothing to do with justice or even with spiteful revenge – will dictate the outcomes. Someone who gets out of jail a week or a month before the election can vote, someone who committed the same offence but is sentenced a week or month before the election, cannot. Due to a drafting error that may or may not have been added at select committee stage – as the Otago University academic Andrew Geddis has pointed out on Pundit, all the people in jail at the same of the Bill’s passing will be able to vote, and only those sentenced after its passage will be barred. As Geddis points out, this will mean that in the cause of cracking down on crime, National/Act have just given murderers such as Clayton Weatherstone and William Bell the right to vote.
That particular drafting error can be easily addressed by a Supplementary Order Paper closer to the time of passage. My problem is with the entire thrust of the Bill. In the early 1990s, the National government of the day erred when it removed the vote from criminals convicted of serious crimes. Canada by contrast, ruled in 2004 – in the wake of the landmark Sauvé case) that the right to vote was a basic right embedded in one’s status as a citizen. Since imprisonment did not entail the revocation of citizenship, prisoners should therefore retain the right to vote. (There is also an argument that a vengeful removal of the right to vote does nothing to assist the process of rehabilitation.)
Of course, removing the right to vote from people in prison is a cheap way for politicians to show they are being ‘tough on crime’. The Quinn Bill, now called the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill, deserves to be tossed in the rubbish tin. At the very least, it should be sent back – as the Law Society is now urging – before the select committee that deals with electoral matters, since it is about disenfranchising a large number of New Zealanders. It should not have been put in the hands of a group of National and Act MPs who seem more than happy to exploit the worst impulses of the redneck fringe of New Zealand society.
Garrett and MMP
So Prime Minister John Key is now trying to shift the blame for the David Garrett fiasco from where it belongs – with Rodney Hide – and hang it on MMP. At his press conference yesterday, Key ventured a ‘personal opinion” that voters would blame the MMP electoral system for the affair.
Really? Why does Key think the public would be that stupid? I thought everyone was pretty clear that it was Rodney Hide who chose to encourage a person guilty of identity theft to stand for Parliament, who then made this wretch the Act Party’s law and order spokesperson, who campaigned on a platform of denying mercy, name suppression and clean slate forgiveness to every law breaker except Garrett himself, and who then chose to keep all this dirty linen concealed from the public. Now, Key is trying to promote the idea that the public will blame the voting system for all this – and not Rodney Hide?
Blimey. I thought it was only liberals who blamed the system for personal failures to accept responsibility. Of course, Key sought to give himself wiggle room. It was only his personal opinion blah blah, he had no scientific basis for thinking the public would react that way etc etc But then came the money quote : “I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t take that view,” he said. Wow. Shouldn’t he? I thought leadership means putting blame where it belongs. In this case, shouldn’t Key be defending MMP if the public is indeed wrongly blaming it for the personal failings of his Act Party buddies ? Of course, that’s not what Key is doing here. He’s really trying to save Hide’s neck, and you have to wonder why.