Opinion: MPs should stick to their word on prison voting ban

We knock them, but being a politician is not an easy job.

Source: 1 NEWS

Navigating the tightrope between coalition deals, promises and what is feasibly achievable - all while still holding a majority of the public on your side is a delicate balancing act.

What is also important is keeping or attempting to keep your word, and alternatively, at the very least providing a valid explanation as to why not.

Whether or not you think prisoners should have the right to vote, Labour's scathing critique of the 2010 blanket ban makes for a slightly confusing 2018 where lifting the ban is not a priority now they are in government.

For background, before 2010 prisoners serving a term of three years or less could vote, after 2010 all prisoners were banned from doing so.

This month, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's finding the blanket ban was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.

Despite the ruling, re-examining prisoner voting rights is not a priority for the Government. It is looking at a Parliamentary remedy which would respond to future rulings of inconsistencies within the Bill of Rights.

I went back to when the law changed in 2010 to look at what MPs said of the ban at the time. 

In 2010, Stuart Nash, who is now Police Minister, said: "This is a nasty bill" while the blanket ban went through Parliament. "It does not save any lives, it does not protect society, and it does not deliver equity."

Mr Nash said he could not believe National’s Chris Finlayson did not stand up and say, "'This is not what our party stands for, this contravenes the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act'."

Strong words in Opposition. Now jump forward to what the Minister said this week while being questioned by Green MP Golriz Ghahraman over lifting the ban.

Mr Nash, answering on behalf of Justice Minister Andrew Little, said: "Every now and again, Parliament does pass a law that isn't consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

"On prisoner voting rights, while we understand the issue, the Government is yet to consider it, and it is not a priority for the time being."

Now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also speaking in 2010 said: "In our view voting is much more than just a right."

Ms Ardern retold a story of door-knocking a person aged in their 60s who had never voted because they had served a couple of short stints in prison.

"It still sits in my mind as an example of exactly the kind of person whom we should ensure exercises that responsibility when in prison. In my view, it is a civic duty."

In 2015 Ms Ardern told the NZ Herald after the High Court ruling that it was "an arbitrary law and one that is full of contradictions and inconsistencies".

Grant Robertson, now Finance Minister, went as far as to describe the ban as "a disgraceful attack on democracy".

Reflecting on this change of stance over the years, it seems baffling to say someone's vote is not a priority, no matter who they are and no matter if the ban should be lifted or if it should stay.

Could there be a snag where it could be difficult to change the law in Parliament? Possibly. However, a lack of prioritising is not a good enough reason to silence these kinds of comments.

Reforming the criminal justice system is obviously important to the Government, so too should be trying to stay in line with the Bill of Rights. It's not one or the other.

What stuck out for me in the 2010 debate was Mr Nash describing denying the rights in the Bill of Rights Act as a "slippery slope".

Eight years is a decent period of time, but those denied their vote or the people who never enrolled, deserve a better explanation than, "the Government is yet to consider it".

For now, the clear-eyed view while in Opposition is now lost in the murk of the reality of being in Government.