Opinion: Prison voting reform reversing 'stuffy old law'

Parliament can at times be seen as a stuffy old place where stuffy old men make stuffy old laws. The ban on prisoner voting rights was one such law. 

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The Government yesterday announced it is reversing a law allowing some prisoners to vote in elections. Source: 1 NEWS

Ironically it took another arguably stuffy old institution with more than likely stuffy old men to point out this injustice. 

And while the intent of this article is not to spark further generational divide - as seen with the recent political euphemism ‘OK Boomer’ - there is another term the younger folk use which is equally important to remember here and that is - ‘stay in your lane’.

In this context it means politicians should steer clear of creating and rehashing shoddy law - particularly where the country’s highest courts have labelled it so. 

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The National Party introduced a ban on prisoner voting rights in 2010.

At the time the party’s own Attorney-General Chris Finlayson raised red flags saying such a ban may be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. 

It was concern the bill’s author - National MP Paul Quinn - would raise and shoot down in each of his speeches during the bill’s three readings at Parliament.

But despite the advice of one of its senior Ministers who held the most senior of legal portfolios - Chris Finlayson was trumped by Paul Quinn. 

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Those sentenced to three years or less will now get the right to vote. Source: 1 NEWS

National’s tough on crime approach need have no bounds.

Even current leader Simon Bridges - who often boasts of his former tenure as a lawyer - argued in favour of the legislation as it was passed through Parliament. 

But just as Chris Finlayson pointed out in 2010 - the High Court would rule in 2015 that the law was in fact inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. 

A decision appealed to the Supreme Court which also confirmed it was a bad law. 

And then of course came the Waitangi Tribunal which found the ban on prisoner voting disproportionately affected Māori and was therefore in breach of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Rulings which could all be taken as a directive to Parliament - stay in your lane.

The current Government has decided to do just that – even if it did take them a while to get there.

Justice Minister Andrew Little announced it’ll reverse the ban back to the pre-2010 status quo, giving prisoners with a sentence of three years or less the right to have their say at the ballot box.

The impact on next year’s election of course will be much of a muchness.

While critics argue this is simply nepotism by way of the Government lining its own pockets with votes – only around 1900 prisoners will now become eligible.

It’s hardly the vast numbers one might have expected with a prison population of around 10,000 - and that assumes they will all actually care to tick the box.

Meanwhile those who led the fight for change - including former prisoner Arthur Taylor and human rights lawyer Richard Francois - are celebrating.

So they should. It was a stuffy old law and was proven as such by those at the upper echelons of the judiciary. 

And yet the celebrations could be short lived. 

Simon Bridges’ first reaction to the news was a promise to overturn the decision if National is elected into power.

It’s a message the party will drive hard into next year’s election arguing Labour is soft on crime.

But while National’s hardline approach will come as no surprise to those avid followers of New Zealand politics - this case in point should serve as a chilling warning.

To drive a piece of law so vigorously when it has been clearly proven to be in contempt of some of the country’s fundamental constitutional documents - including the Bill of Rights and the Treaty of Waitangi – raises serious questions and concern. 

To what end does a politician or political party draw a line under its moral and legal positions?

The simple answer of course is easy - stay in your lane.