On my list of concerns about the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006, the removal of the vote from prisoners serving full-time detention ranked pretty low. Nonetheless, the measure’s disproportionate impact on the Aboriginal population gave it an unpleasant edge, so there is good reason to be pleased with the High Court’s decision to strike it down (Brian Costar of the Swinburne University of Technology offers a more sophisticated critique of its jurisprudential shortcomings). The case was brought by Vickie Lee Roach, an Aboriginal woman serving a six-year sentence in Victoria for burglary and recklessly causing serious injury, with the support of former Federal Court judge Ron Merkel. The reasons for the court’s decision will not be published for several months, but are known to revolve around the constitution’s requirement that MPs be chosen directly by the people, and to have been influenced by similar rulings in Canada and South Africa.
|Women inmates debate the merits of the single transferable vote|
For most of the federal parliament’s history, prisoners were disqualified from voting if serving an offence punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer. This was eventually relaxed to five years or longer in 1983, then to apply only to prisoners serving terms of five years or longer in 1995. The Howard government first attempted to introduce a blanket ban before the 2004 election, but were only able to persuade the Senate to reduce the required sentence from five years to three years. A few years earlier, Poll Bludger regular Graeme Orr calculated that the government’s proposal would have increased the number of prisoners affected from around 11,000 to 17,875; my own back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests the Senate’s amendment reduced this to about 14,500 (Graeme will no doubt correct me if I am wrong). Then came what Nationals Senator Ron Boswell unwisely but accurately described as open slather following the Coalition’s Senate election triumph in 2004. The effect of the High Court ruling is to restore the previously existing three-year sentence limit.
UPDATE: A good assessment of the judgement and the whole chosen directly by the people thorny potato from Ken Parish at Club Troppo.