Minister of Justice Andrew Little: Restoring prisoners' right to vote still not a priority

The AM Show 12/08/2019

Taking away prisoners' rights to vote was part of a "fascist" culture the National-led Government fostered against criminals, Justice Minister Andrew Little said on Monday.

His comments come in the wake of a new Waitangi Tribunal report which says people behind bars should be allowed to vote because the Electoral Act is inconsistent with the Treaty. 

Prisoners' rights to vote were revoked in 2010 by the National-led Government. Before then, prisoners serving sentences under three years - the length of a parliamentary term - were allowed to vote.

Government partners the Māori Party and United Future voted against the Bill, which passed with help from ACT, which was at the time positioning itself as a hardline law-and-order party under leader Rodney Hide. 

The tribunal now says the law is disenfranchising Māori, who are far more likely to be imprisoned than Pākehā. 

"The tribunal has found as a matter of fact that Māori have been disproportionately affected," it said in a statement on Monday, "exacerbating a pre-existing and already disproportionate removal of Māori from the electoral roll. 

In 2010, Māori were 2.1 times more likely to have been removed from the electoral roll than non-Māori. In 2018, the number was 11.4 times more likely.

It said Crown officials in 2010 "failed to provide sufficient information about the specific effect the legislation would have on Māori".

"The tribunal also found [the law] is inconsistent with, and, in part, undermines, the purpose of the corrections system under section 5 of the Corrections Act 2004 and, therefore, prejudices the rehabilitation and reintegration of Māori prisoners; a further breach of the principle of active protection."

Little told The AM Show on Monday he disagreed with the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill, introduced by single-term National MP Paul Quinn, saying there was little public debate on it.

"There was a culture at the time - the three-strikes law was going in, ACT was absolutely off the leash when it came to kind of the more fascist sort of policies with criminals. National and Paul Quinn just came in behind, and everybody just let it sail through."

Last year the Supreme Court ruled the legislation was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. A complaint was also lodged with the United Nations in January over the present Government's inaction on righting the alleged wrong. Little said while it's not a priority, the combined impact of the Supreme Court ruling and the tribunal's report means something has to be done. 

At some point we are going to have to address it... My view is there is something here I need to at least put in front of Cabinet, and Cabinet can decide what the next step can be.

Justice Advisory Panel chairperson Chester Borrows, who as a National MP at the time voted for the Bill, says the tribunal's report has been a long time coming.

"The Attorney-General's Bill of Rights report actually said that it was wrong... but it went ahead anyway," he told Newshub.

"If the Waitangi Tribunal's successful in having it amended and getting rid of it, I'll be very pleased about that."

Chester Borrows. Photo credit: The AM Show

Borrows says the tribunal's recommendation makes perfect sense.

"If we want people to be rehabilitated into a society they care about, then having the ability to be able to vote on who that Government is going to be and affect that society is key... Prisoners need to concentrate on what life is going to be like outside of prison. Removing a vote when you didn't need to took away some semblance of that rehabilitation."

Little backed this view.

When you commit a crime, you are in breach of your citizen's obligations, and when you go to prison you lose some of your citizen's rights. There is a legitimate debate about which citizen's rights you lose - obviously you lose the right to freedom of movement, and a few other things as well. 

"The right to vote comes into that - in fact, up until 2010 prisoners on longer-term sentences... have never had the right to vote. I think there was always an exception, certainly since the 1990s, for prisoners on short-term sentences because eventually, they were going to come out. The argument was they should have a say on the people who are running the country they are going to be entering into once they get to the end of their prison sentence."

The report also recommends a process to inform legislators on the impact Bills have on Treaty obligations.

"Prisoners who get taken off the roll - Māori prisoners in particular - they sort of never go back on the roll," said Little. "And because there is disproportionately more Māori in prison - they're over 50 percent of the prison population - that policy, particularly as it applies to prisoners on short-term prisoners, is having a disproportionate effect on that population, as opposed to others."

Minimal effect on Parliament

Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive Mike Williams told Newshub in Marchrestoring short-term prisoners' rights to vote wouldn't have an impact on the make-up of Parliament, as it will only add about 7000 votes to the pool - just 0.25 percent of the 2.6 million that voted in 2017.

"The jail population it's about 10,000 - 3000 of those are remand prisoners who [already] have the vote, so it's not going to make a huge amount of difference."

National leader Simon Bridges told Newshub in March he was dead against letting prisoners vote, no matter how small the effect on Parliament.

"You do the crime, you do time. It's pretty simple, isn't it?" he told The AM Show.

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman has a Member's Bill in the ballot which would give prisoners the right to vote, as well as lowering the MMP threshold to 4 percent and removing the coattail rule.