New Zealand takes great pride in having been the first country in the world to give women the vote. But not all New Zealand women can vote, as most prisoners are still denied that right.
In 2010, the National party passed a blanket ban on prisoner voting. Until then, prisoners serving sentences of less than three years were allowed to vote. This government has just announced it will give the vote back to those with sentences of three years or less – probably about 1,900 prisoners.
This is a welcome change for progressives. But it’s also the bare minimum the government could get away with. It’s essentially a half-measure, given that they will continue to disenfranchise prisoners with longer sentences.
The decision was forced by a group, including long-term prisoner Arthur Taylor, who mounted an audacious legal challenge to the ban, taking the issue to various judicial bodies and winning.
The supreme court declared the voting ban to be inconsistent with New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act.
The Waitangi Tribunal found the ban does not comply with the Crown’s Treaty of Waitangi obligations because of its grossly disproportionate impact on Māori, who are over-represented in the prison system. It called for the government to urgently repeal the law and allow prisoners to vote in 2020.
Progressives – and possibly even most Labour MPs – support all prisoners being given the right to vote. But the government fears this would be too unpopular and so has compromised, hoping to appease progressive voters with an improvement, but not scare conservatives by retaining the voting ban for the worst criminals.
The three-year sentence cut-off for eligibility to vote while in prison is arbitrary, with Ardern simply claiming that “the balance is about right”.
Some attempt has been made to justify the three-year cut off as being the length of an election cycle in New Zealand, but there’s little logic in this. The government says individuals sentenced to less than three years will be released into the community during the next parliamentary term and should therefore have a say in the election result. But the same logic would also dictate that those nearing the end of long sentences should also be given the right to vote.
In defending the continued voting ban for prisoners with longer sentences, Jacinda Ardern shares National’s view that if you commit a serious crime you should lose the right to vote. Where the two parties differ is where to draw the line.
Despite their similar principles on prisoner voting, the two parties have traded heavy rhetoric about it. Labour’s justice minister used the term “fascist” for National’s law and order culture that led to the complete ban. And National accuses Labour of being “soft on crime” for the slightest liberalisation.
For both parties a concern with branding outweighs clearly principled positions.
It doesn’t augur well for next year’s election campaign, which could descend into an auction of awfulness on crime and punishment. National seems hellbent on shamelessly escalating hardline conservative themes in this area – probably in an attempt to sink the rival socially conservative NZ First party, by outbidding them on populism.
National has just released its discussion paper on law and order, which is full of “tough on crime” sentiments and promises.
This has drawn the ire of former National MP Chester Borrows, who is now a justice-reform advocate. Borrows delivers his verdict on his own party’s pronouncements: “Not based on evidence, of course, other than the evidence that these policies buy votes and probably votes National already holds. But they will also buy votes from New Zealand First and those votes are gold.” He worries that “Kiwis are addicted to punishment”.
Unfortunately, the Labour-led government seems willing to let National set the rules in this game of political football. In its election campaign, Labour will not stray far in from conservative rhetoric and solutions. This is epitomised by their decision on the prisoner voting issue.
So often, this has been the government’s approach over the last two years – to come up with policies and solutions that are compromises rather than full measures.
From the reform of housing, to dealing with inequality, or even on climate change, Ardern’s government is keenly aware of National’s conservative pressure, and so cuts it cloth to meet those concerns.
The smaller risk is that it satisfies neither side. The bigger political risk is that such half measures mean the government is seen as being too scared to implement proper progressive and principled reforms.
On too many issues of concern to its supporters, the government has shown time and again that it will take the middle way between its progressive base and the conservative opposition. But, could this be detrimental to an electorate wanting real leadership and boldness? As they say, sometimes standing in the middle of road just gets you run over.