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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2208

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (10:14 AM) —That was indeed a tortuous contribution by the member for Mitchell on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010. Arguments like, because we have particular provisions for who can be in parliament, it should follow that we have exactly the same conditions for voters, are preposterous. That is like saying that, because the United States says that a person born outside the United States cannot be President, no person born outside the United States should vote. Equally, there are age differentials in many countries between who can be in parliament and who can vote. In this country, we have a history of renunciation of citizenship of other countries being a requirement to get into parliament, which certainly every voter in the country does not have to prescribe to. That was a pathetic performance by the member for Mitchell.

Similarly, he made the tortuous argument that, because in the GetUp! case the vote in the High Court was 4-3, somehow that makes the decision second rate—that essentially we can sit around for the next decade and not act on these matters because of the nature of the majority. I am a person who might feel very troubled by many decisions of our court—particularly in regard to immigration—but that does not give me the right to say that we do not have a Constitution in this country and that the parliament can do as it wants. To say it can sit around for decades, twiddling its thumbs and ignoring decisions by the High Court, is absolutely ridiculous.

I do not want to dwell at length on the question of enrolment. I want to devote myself more to the question of prisoner voting. But, as the member for Banks indicates, after every election we have heard complaints by the coalition about massive corruption and we have had all these submissions by Amy McGrath and her group—and they have never, ever produced systematic, worthwhile, valuable evidence about electoral fraud in this country. After every election the number of people who have double-voted is minimal. They are usually found to be people with intellectual disabilities, aged people et cetera. There has never been systematic evidence of electoral fraud in this country.

It also has to be noted that the numbers involved in this change in regard to the enrolment prescription are significant. In the last election, 57,732 voters had been enrolled and a further 40,408 voters had had their enrolment details updated. These are significant numbers of people whose votes would be voided by the provision of the previous government. As anybody who follows this issue knows, the predominance of these people have certain characteristics. They are overwhelmingly people who move more often than most, people who rent properties and people with lower economic circumstances. Quite frankly, the coalition’s position is discriminatory. As the High Court noted, on moving to a situation where there was a seven-day allowance for re-enrolment, there was:

… no compelling practical problem or difficulty in the operation of the electoral system.

I want to turn to the question of prisoner voting. One would assume from some contributions that the kinds of people in prison are the same and always have been, that this is not subject to political decision making and that there cannot be any kind of bias in the way in which people are imprisoned. It is interesting to note an article by David Cole, ‘Hope and betrayal on death row’, one of a series of articles he has written for the New York Review of Books. He noted that in the 1970s in the United States the incarceration rate was very similar to that of Europe—roughly 100 people out of every 100,000 people went to jail. Today it is 700 per 100,000—a growth of seven times the number in the 1970s. They put that down to a tactic by the Republicans in the United States to portray themselves as anti-crime and to portray their political opponents, the Democrats, as pro Afro-American, pro-crime and against law and order. After that period of massive growth in the numbers incarcerated in the US, we saw a trend—predating the election of Obama—in many states of a movement back towards reduced severity, towards treatment, early release, parole, probation, and reduced use of mandatory sentences, because of the absolute cost.

What interests me is the kinds of people who are in prison. They also show very distinct characteristics. In another article by David Cole in the New York Review of Books on 19 November 2009, he noted that in the United States Afro-Americans were 13 per cent of the population but 50 per cent of the prison population. He noted that, whilst their unemployment rate was twice, and their net worth was only one-fifth of, that of whites, they had an incarceration rate eight times higher. He also noted that 60 per cent of all young black men who had dropped out of high school had been to prison, but, for those who had a college education, it was only five per cent. More has been written about this in the United States than even in western Europe or Australia. In those figures we see a very distinct pattern of who goes to jail and who, it is argued, should be disenfranchised. They are overwhelmingly of black derivation, with poor eduction and low income.

This of course has some political repercussions. In the article ‘The truly disenfranchised’ by Jeff Manza, Christopher Uggen and Marcus Britton it was noted:

Our results suggest that felon disfranchisement played a decisive role in several U.S. Senate elections, contributing to the Republican Senate majority of the early 1980s and mid-1990s. Moreover, at least one recent Democratic presidential victory would have been jeopardized had contemporary rates of disfranchisement prevailed during earlier periods.

We saw this most nakedly in Florida some elections ago, where the state governor, brother of the President, illegally disenfranchised large numbers of, predominantly, blacks. In Florida at that stage they had a rule that you could not vote for the rest of your life if you had been in prison, but, as I understand it, it only applied to people who offended inside Florida. Illegally, they scrapped from the rolls people—and they would have had no chance of getting back on them—who had served sentences in Tennessee, Kentucky, Idaho et cetera. That is an example of how these situations can lead to political outcomes. Florida has, since then, moved towards scrapping those laws.

I congratulate the Kings College of London. They produce a very good website, which I would recommend to people, which talks about incarceration rates around the world and the numbers of people who can be affected by these laws. In 1992 the rate of incarceration in England and Wales was 90 per 100,000. The latest figure is 149 per 100,000—the same trend but not anywhere near as extreme as in the United States. More and more people are being incarcerated to the point where today UK prisons should be holding 77,000 people but they are holding 84,000. That is indicative of the large numbers of people who are disenfranchised.

There was a person who took this matter to the European Court of Human Rights. People might be aware that the UK parliament has, in the last few weeks, started to bow to a European Court of Human Rights decision which was made back in 2004. British governments, Labor and Conservative, have been trying to avoid the outcomes of this decision made seven years ago. Now that they are facing a bill of $143 million in compensation to prisoners they are deciding that they might abide by the decision. Last week they voted in the House of Commons, by 234 to 22, to tell the European Court to go jump, but in the end they will do what they are told.

The situation was that there was a prisoner serving a 27-year sentence for manslaughter. He educated himself and he read a book that said that through political pressure and by activity you can affect politics. He set about this challenge to the European Court and eventually succeeded.

Around the world there are very different attitudes towards voting by prisoners. Some countries nominally allow prisoner voting but in practice do not. Cyprus says, ‘Yes, you can vote, but you have to be allowed out of jail on the day.’ Slovakia says, ‘You can vote,’ but does not give people facilities to vote. But the German Constitution—not the laws of the government but the Constitution—says, ‘We should encourage people to vote.’

I had the opportunity a decade ago to go to the Netherlands, to a jail near Groningen, to see prisoners there. I have mentioned this in parliament before. Ironically, the Netherlands is very liberal—it might have changed with conservative governments over the last few years—and has the most advanced prison system in the world. This is not Left liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s. They had a royal commission into jails straight after the Second World War. The Dutch political establishment had been in jail under the Nazis and they thought it would be a good idea to have good prison conditions. In the Netherlands the political parties actually campaign in the prisons. It may interest anyone here to know that virtually every prison guard at that prison is a university graduate rather than a retired policeman.

As I said, it is very different in different places around the world but in general most European Western progressive liberal countries that we associate ourselves with have extremely liberal provisions on this front. As I noted, the European Court is very strongly enforcing prisoner rights in the United Kingdom.

In Australia we have not been immune from the increasing number of people being put in jails. Australia’s rate varies but New South Wales is the most extreme case. I have to give a bit of a plaudit to the state opposition. The shadow Attorney-General has indicated that the matter is so serious that he intends taking very strong measures, if the Liberals are elected, to reduce the number of people in prison. It is a very ironic situation for the Liberal-National parties to be in but that is the policy they have come to because the situation is so serous. In Australia 140 people per 100,000 are incarcerated. That rate has grown very greatly. In 1992 it was about 90 per 100,000. So it has increased from 90 to 140 per 100,000 in the course of 20 years.

We are talking about significant numbers of people who are incarcerated. We are talking about people who predominantly have certain characteristics. People in prison often have intellectual disabilities are often illiterate. Large numbers of people are only in prison because they have not been able to get a stable job and were not able to survive in our society. Many of those people would be disenfranchised.

You could have a situation in a country where the rates of incarceration are so high that it has political dimensions. The kind of people being imprisoned and the number of them are such that political decisions will be different. You could have a government which legislates to put more and more of these people in jail. That has been the trend in the United States in particular. In Australia an Indigenous woman, Vicki Roach, took up the cause. She shows that people can recover and make a contribution. She did a masters degree. She studied and saw the need for people like herself to have a voice.

I commend both parts of the legislation. Returning to the theme of the member for Mitchell, we cannot have a situation where people blithely say that it is irrelevant that the High Court did this because the decision was 4-3 and it might be reversed next week, or that some judge might die and be replaced by a conservative or that this and that might happen. All these are excuses as to why the High Court should be ignored, but it is really a mask for having provisions, particularly in relation to the enrolment period, that seek to make things more difficult for people.

Under the guise of concern about fraud—fraud that has not been evidenced or proven—they seek to make it difficult for people to enrol. There is a whole history of this, including the requirements for how people enrol, the time period for enrolment and identification requirements. All we have here is a systematic long-term approach by the coalition to say that this country is dreadful. Its world-renowned Australian Electoral Commission, respected in most countries around the world and used for electoral observation in so many countries, is so incompetent and stupid that it cannot police the alleged fraud by which people get rights that they should not have. We know the reality: the Australian Electoral Commission is world renowned and we have one of the best electoral systems in the world. These excuses should not be used to justify disenfranchising people and making it more difficult for people to participate in our society.