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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 25079

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (4:19 PM) —I have just been informed that there has been a glitch. One of the clerks has apologised, because the clerk had thought they were circulated a couple of hours ago. It is one of those things that happens, Senator Brown. I am happy to spend a couple of minutes on the important issue that Senator Brown has raised. I was a bit surprised by the outcome, Senator Brown, but, so that you are aware, the opposition have not supported the government’s proposal to stop anyone in prison at the time of an election being able to vote. The amendment that we moved has the effect of disqualifying from voting only those prisoners serving a sentence which runs from the return of the writs for one election to the issue of the writs for the next election, so for the whole period of an electoral cycle.

We are concerned that, under the proposal that was contained in this bill, we would have a situation where a person who would be sentenced to, for example, two weeks in jail that coincided with an election could not vote at all, yet another prisoner who might be sentenced to two years in jail but whose term of imprisonment did not coincide with an election would be able to vote. We have also consistently indicated for many years that the proposal to deny the right of any prisoner to vote, such as this proposal contained in the government’s bill, irrespective of length of sentence would represent a breach of our obligations under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as those under the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was re-signed by the Howard government in 1999. You would be aware, Senator Brown, that parliament has previously accepted that certain classes of prisoners should not be able to vote. The opposition have not opposed that, which has been the view of the parliament previously. We do say that it is possible, as the parliament has attempted to do, to distinguish between major and minor crimes.

The underlying logic, if you like, of the opposition’s amendment is to disqualify from voting only those prisoners whose sentence meant they were in jail for the term of the parliament which immediately precedes the election they are disqualified for. Only those prisoners serving a sentence which runs from the return of the writs for the preceding election to the issue of the writs for the current election—that is, for the whole period of the electoral cycle—would be disqualified under the amendment that the opposition has proposed. I did not expect that the opposition’s amendment would be carried but it was, as you are probably now aware, Senator Brown. That is, in the short time available to us, fair and reasonable and certainly is an accurate summary of the situation. I cannot quite explain the voting behaviour of others in the chamber, I only know about the consistent position that the federal parliamentary Labor Party has taken on this issue since it was first raised by the Howard government a number of years ago. You will recall that I have previously moved an amendment, I think twice in this chamber, in the same terms and it has not found favour previously. I, being a creature of habit, had expected that to be the case today but it was not.