Last night Parliament took away the right to vote from a group of New Zealanders. They are a group of people you might not have much time for, those serving prison sentences of three years or less. Some of them will have done some awful things, some of them will have done a large number of minor things, some of them might well be innocent. All of them will return to our communities one day.
I can understand that there will be many people who will say, ‘good job’, and many who did not realise that there were any prisoners who could vote. But I believe that Parliament taking away their right to vote (actually their right to be on the electoral roll) on the basis of a poorly thought out private members bill, passed by a narrow margain is in my view one of the most shameful things I have witnessed in this Parliament.
There is not much that is more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote, and it was whisked away last night with barely a justification from the government. A government who that very day had announced a constitutional review that had at its heart the need to only make changes to electoral law if there is a good reason and if there is a consensus.
To me accepting the right to vote for people who challenge our values is one of the greatest tests of being truly committed to democracy. Eliminating that right for some people we consider not worthy, as glibly as was done by the government, is to me an assault on democratic values. As the Bill of Rights Act assessment on this bill notes overriding that right to vote (which itself is part of the Act) requires a high test to be passed. That has not happened here.
Beyond that, the Bill is a cruel hoax on the victims of crime and their families. Not one piece of evidence was provided to show that passing this Bill would stop crimes, or reduce re-offending. It will not make New Zealand a safer place. It will not help rehabilitation or re-integration into society. It creates massive inconsistencies (e.g. people convicted of the same crime, one on home detention, the other in prison will have different rights) and it nearly, accidentally, gave the right to vote to the most serious offenders through a drafting error, until Prof Andrew Geddis, pointed out the mistake.
I try not to lose my temper, in Parliament or in life. But last night I was close to it. (My speech is here) Parliament took away a fundamental right from a group of New Zealanders with barely a word in justification, without a word from the Justice Minister or the Attorney General in the debate. The majority was provided by the ACT Party who gave us a 48 second contribution. Democracy, and those who have fought for it here and overseas, deserve better than that.