SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Democracy denied – Labour’s saddest failing





Labour’s most tragic failing to date has largely flown under the media radar: to reinstate the right of prisoners to vote. Labour’s inaction is made worse in the knowledge that it would have taken little effort and very little cost to undertake.

In 2010, as part of it’s get-tough-on-crime rhetoric, National passed the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act. It’s intention was clear enough:

The bill proposes to remove the right of a person serving a term of imprisonment of less than three years to register as an elector.

Previously, the Electoral Act 1993 had disqualified prisoners from voting those “detained in a prison under a sentence of imprisonment for life, preventive detention or for a term of three years or more“.

The Act was first proposed by National MP, Paul Quinn. Mr Quinn was one of National’s few Maori MPs at the time, and was struggling to make a name for himself in Parliament. In both the 2008 and 2011 general elections he finished second in the Hutt Electorate to Labour’s Trevor Mallard. By 2011 he had dropped seven places on National’s Party List and did not make it back to Parliament as a List MP.

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The irony of Mr Quinn’s sponsoring of the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill should not be lost on anyone. As a Maori MP and Treaty negotiator for Ngati Awa, his Bill would target and disenfranchise a predominantly Maori prison population;



Attorney General Chris Finlayson – one of National’s well-respected moderates and an uncommonly insightful member of Parliament – was scathing of Quinn’s Bill. In a report presented to the House, he attacked the Bill as “unjustifiably inconsistent”, “not rationally linked”, having ” irrational inconsistencies”, “irrational and irregular”, and creating “irrational effects of the Bill … disproportionate to its objective”.

He pointed out several examples of irrational inconsistencies;

“The blanket ban on prisoner voting is both under and over inclusive. It is under inclusive because a prisoner convicted of a serious violent offence who serves a two and a half year sentence in prison between general elections will be able to vote. It is over inclusive because someone convicted and given a one-week sentence that coincided with a general election would be unable to vote. The provision does not impair the right to vote as minimally as reasonably possible as it disenfranchises in an irrational and irregular manner.”

Minister Finlayson concluded that “the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners appears to be inconsistent with s 12 of the Bill of Rights Act and that it cannot be justified under s 5 of that Act“.

Writing in his regular on-line column, Gordon Campbell also pointed out bizarre contradictions inherent in Quinn’s Bill;

Hidden in the majority verdict though, is this gem of illogic : “The Electoral Enrolment Centre has proposed working with the Department of Corrections to develop a national procedure to encourage prisoners to re-enrol upon release from prison.” Got that? The centre-right faction on the select committee wants officialdom to devise a new bureaucratic programme to re-register prisoners all over again, once they’re out of jail. First, they want to treat prisoners as non-persons and deny them the vote – and then want to set up a nationwide programme to re-ignite the same motivation that they’ve just gratuitously chosen to dampen. If there was a prize for political stupidity and bureaucratic proliferation in the first term of the current government, this Bill would have to be a prime contender. Prime Minister John Key clearly needs to take heed of the verdict of his Attorney – General, and advise the National caucus to vote against this measure.

Quinn may have vanished from Parliament (and from most people’s memories), but the chilling legacy he left behind in that one piece of ill-considered legislation has caused on-going social harm.

Despite Minister Finlayson’s warning, National and ACT passed the legislation 63 votes to 58 against. The Maori Party and Peter Dunne – National’s coalition partners – voted with Labour, the Greens, and the Progressive Party (Jim Anderton).

Labour MPs were vociferous in their opposition to Quinn’s Bill.

Lianne Dalziel:

“We know why this bill is being introduced: it is called dog-whistle politics. There is nothing worse in this House than to see matters of substance raised in a debate such as this. I take the strongest possible exception to using an amendment to electoral law to argue this dog-whistle position to attack people who are in prison at a particular time.


I say that getting marginalised people in our society on to the electoral roll is one of the hardest things that we have to confront when we try to sign up people during the election campaign. Every member of this House will know how much resource we put into the Electoral Commission to make sure that people are on the roll in the lead-up to both the local-body elections, which take place this year, and the general election, which takes place next year.”

Charles Chauvel:

“The Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill is nothing more than the latest in a long line of dog-whistle attempts to make the Government, the National Party, and its ACT Party fellow traveller over there seem tough on crime. This House should be gravely concerned that some of its members can come in here and propose legislation for those reasons, without any regard for its practical implications. Those members would place political image above fairness, above the value our society places on the civic duty of voting, above the effectiveness of our electoral roll, and above prisoners’ reintegration into society upon release…


This bill has no intention other than to make the Government look tough on crime.”

Chris Hipkins:

“This bill will disenfranchise them from society even further.


We spend so much time getting people on to the electoral roll in the first place, and some of the people who are the most difficult to get on to the roll in the first place are the people who are disenfranchised from our community. We struggle to get the people who are more likely to go to prison on to the electoral roll in the first place, yet this bill removes them from the electoral roll. It is not justified. It will further marginalise them from our community.

Tough on crime rhetoric is the easy part. Dealing with the underlying social causes of criminal offending, the disenfranchisement from society, and the total feeling of anger that exists within many of the people in our prisons is something we have to think long and hard about. We do not do a good job of this, because the political rhetoric is too hard on any side of this political debate. It is very difficult to deal with this issue in a way that will look good on the news and will make people likely to vote for us. Yes, there are votes in being seen to be hard on criminals. There are very few votes, unfortunately, in dealing with the root causes of crime and criminal offending, because they are not easy and they do not fit on a bumper sticker.”

Clayton Cosgrove:

“… The truth about this bill, which every person who came before the select committee—including David Farrar, although he supported it—agreed on, is that it will do nothing to help victims. This bill will do nothing to stop recidivism. It will do nothing to stop reoffending, and there is no evidence that it will. This bill will do nothing to change prisoner behaviour. Every submitter bar the member Paul Quinn admitted that this bill was simply a political pamphlet.”

Grant Robertson:

“This kind of legislation is the simple stuff, the meaningless stuff. The hard work of the criminal justice area in trying to make sure that we rehabilitate people and reintegrate them into society is not what we hear from National. 


The true test of being committed to democracy is to say that even if people have committed some of these crimes, we still fundamentally believe that they have a human right to vote. If we want people to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society, we need to give them a chance to be involved in society. Virtually every person who is covered by the extension of this law, the 2,000 or 3,000 people who are sentenced each year to less than 3 years in prison, will end up back in society. We are not talking here—though with the mistake that National has made, it almost is—about people sentenced to life imprisonment. That is already in the law. Every single one of the people to whom this extension applies will be back in society. What we should be doing is working out how we reintegrate those people into society and how we contribute to rehabilitation. Instead, we have petty, spiteful legislation that does nothing to make our communities safer.”

Carmel Sepuloni:

“I look at the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill and think that it is so incredibly trivial and insignificant. The bill will bring about no change, and no positive repercussions, for New Zealand society.


The one question that I have to ask when I look at this bill, given that it is a law and order bill, which has gone through the Law and Order Committee, is whether this bill will act as a deterrent to crime. I think the answer is actually no. I cannot envisage any person who is incarcerated, or any person who is on the verge of committing a crime, thinking: “Oh, I had better not commit this burglary; otherwise I will go to prison and lose my right to vote!”. The reality is that for all of us in this House to vote is a right, and for many other people around the world it is an absolute privilege to have the right to vote. But I assume that many of the people who are incarcerated may not actually see voting as being one of the priorities in their lives. In fact, I wonder how many of those people who are incarcerated who actually exercise the right to vote have actually felt a sense of loss when they have been incarcerated and lost that right to vote. This bill seems rather insignificant and almost a complete waste of time in regard to what that member, Paul Quinn, was attempting to do.

When we look at whether it could act as a deterrent to crime, we see that obvious common-sense dictates that actually, no, it probably will not.”

Then-Maori Party MP,  Hone Harawira, was no less scathing of the Bill;

“Tēnā koe, Mr Assistant Speaker. Huri rauna kia ora tātou katoa e te Whare. This bill, the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill, to remove the right of anyone in jail to vote is a direct attack on the democratic freedoms of people we should be trying to help. It is an assault on the intelligence of ordinary New Zealanders. It is another in a raft of misbegotten, panicked pieces of legislation that are driving this country over the precipice into the mindless depths of right-wing insanity.”

Green MP, David Clendon, seemingly had to remind our elected representatives – especially those in government – that voting was core and fundamental to democracy;

“The right to vote, the commission said, is considered fundamental to representative democracies… It [the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill] is at odds with the concept of democracy.”

In 2014, “jailhouse lawyer”, Arthur Taylor, challenged the National government’s law in a Court of Law.



In July 2015, the High Court found in Taylor’s favour. Justice Heath reasserted Attorney General Finlayson’s determination that banning prisoners from voting was  inconsistent with the Bill of Rights and unjustified;

“The purpose of a formal declaration is to draw to the attention of the New Zealand public that Parliament has enacted legislation inconsistent with a fundamental right.”

In 2017, the Court of Appeal also determined that the law was unfair, unjustified, and inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.

National refused point blank to repeal the law. Said Bill English;

“If they raise significant policy issues we’d look at them, but up until now we haven’t seen a reason to change the law.”

Then came the election last year and the National government was swept away. A Labour-led Coalition could finally undo a bad law.

Or so you would think.

On 9 November, after another victory by Arthur Taylor in the Supreme Court, Coalition Justice Minister, Andrew Little issued a response;



Minister Little said;

“It’s not that much of a priority.”

It’s. Not. That. Much. Of. A. Priority.

Think about that for a moment: “It’s not that much of a priority.”

According to Minister Little, the very foundation of democracy – voting – is “not that much of a priority.”

Attempting to re-engage a marginalised sector of our society by encouraging civic responsibility is “not that much of a priority.”

In the year that is the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand –



– voting by a disenfranchised, disengaged section of our society is “not that much of a priority.”

Overturning a bad law “not that much of a priority.”

I sincerely hope that Minister Little did not understand the full implications and that he mis-spoke. Because when an elected representative declares that righting a wrong – such as citizens stripped of their vote – is “not that much of a priority”, they are demonstrating a callous disregard for our democratic traditions that defies understanding.

Clendon, Harawira, and others were correct to describe Quinn’s Bill as a direct attack on the democratic freedoms of people. The right to vote is the most basic cornerstone of a true, participatory democracy. Nothing else comes close to the critical importance of the universal franchise.

Only in countries where a notional facade of democracy exists in name only, is the right to vote regarded with similar cavalier disregard. In both Russia and the United States, vested interests have actively undermined participatory democracy. In China, voting is limited to one party. Britain is still locked in a feudal-era First Past the Post system.

When the National government’s own Attorney General – Chris Finlayson – described the removal of the right for prisoners to vote as “unjustifiably inconsistent with the electoral rights affirmed by s12 of the Bill of Rights Act“, then we are left with only one conclusion: it was bad law from the start.

Minister Little was completely and utterly wrong when he said it was “not that much of a priority.”

It should be the highest priority for any nation professing to be a participatory democracy.

If the former National government could abrogate workers rights by changing their status from employees to “contractors”, with an odious piece of legislation passed in just 48 hour from First Reading to Royal Assent – then it should not be an insurmountable task to abolish the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act before the house rises this year.

In fact, by next Friday would be good.

Minister Little, tear down this bad law.

Minister Little, do it now.

Make it a priority.





Legislation: Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010

Ministry of Justice: Report of the Attorney-General under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 on the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill

Parliament: Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill

Wikipedia: Paul Quinn

NZ Herald: Cross-claim endangers settlement

Department of Corrections: Prison facts and statistics – September 2011

Parliament: Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill — Third Reading

Parliament: Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill — First Reading

Parliament: Parliament: Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill — Second Reading

TVNZ: Jailed bush lawyer asks High Court for right to vote

Radio NZ: Prison vote law breaches human rights – judge

Mediaworks/Newshub:  No voting in prison ‘unfair’ – Court of Appeal

Radio NZ: Prisoners’ right to vote currently not a priority for Parliament – Little

Ministry for Culture & Heritage: Suffrage 125

Legislation: Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act 2010 (aka “Hobbit Law”)


Scoop media: Martin Doyle Cartoon – Voting sucks


Radio NZ: Protest over prison voting ban

Other Blogs

The Daily Blog: Prisoner Rights Blogger wins for Human Rights

Green:  Prisoner voting ban needs to be repealed

The Green Blog: Prisoner voting disqualification and the Bill of Rights Act

Public Address: Fact-checking Parliament – more prisoners can vote than they think

Werewolf: Robbing the Vote




It’s a measure of the times we live in that neither the media nor New Zealanders in general seem worried that parliament can ‘remove’ rights supposedly guaranteed under our Bill of Rights. Prisoners are themselves victims of a serious constitutional crime. Given our noble history of women’s suffrage, it’s amazing no women have spoken up on behalf of women prisoners.” – Martin Doyle, cartoonist, 29 January 2015



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  1. “Labour’s most tragic failing to date has largely flown under the media radar: to reinstate the right of prisoners to vote.”

    Yep Frank;

    Also Labour’s biggest failing is a lack of “inclusion” that they promised us they as a new ‘warmer, gentler, caring, inclusive, government would deliver us also before the election.

    They even topped this pledge with; – “we will give everyone a voice and be heard”

    Bull shit is our response to their dishonesty here; – as they have done just the opposite now.

    where is our $50 million dollar; – “free to air commercial free independent investigative journalism channel we ask??????

    “inclusion”; – really it was just a pipe dream as they were smoking weed I guess!!!

    Good article Frank thanks.

  2. Agree 100% Repeal the bill, what are they waiting for?

    Even weirder because they have gone out on a limb for the Czech Drug smuggler to reside here which shows (again) that they care more about human rights of overseas based residents that Kiwis born here, maybe they think they get international adoration and brownie points to take the world’s privileged scrum? I guess Czech smuggler will eventually be able to vote, likewise Peter Thiel after 11 days of stepping in NZ but apparently those born here, who do far less crimes, but get punished far more, are not given that right.

    The only reason Labour is still around is that the Natz are completely dysfunctional. It is not that people like what Labour stand for and are doing (because most of the time it’s a schitzophenic screw up of polices) but because they are against the worse National party.

  3. If you’ve done jail time, I don’t think you should have the right to vote again……ever.
    I’m sick of the likes of our Czech “friend” being given repeated free passes whilst their victims are left largely to sink or swim

    • You haven’t read my article, have you, Jays? How do you re-connect marginalied people back into society if you’re going to keep marginalising them?

      Feel free to think that through and come up with a valid answer.

      By the way, do you extend your diktat that “if you’ve done jail time, I don’t think you should have the right to vote again……ever” to homosexual men who were imprisoned for their orientation, pre-1986?

      What about sex-workers who were convicted pre-2003?

      What about people who ran foul of New Zealand’s strict financial/commercial controls, pre-1984?

      What about people who did something stupid in their youth; did jail time; and have never re-offended again?

      How do you reconcile those questions in your black-and-white view of the world? Where does grey fit in?

    • A very simplistic, one-eyed view of things, Jays. Frank has presented an in-depth look at the issue and you’ve responded with a parroted comment that is lettle better than a knee-jerk.

      How do you reintergrate prisoners into society if you completely cut them off from that same society? Any ideas?

    • What about people who should be doing jail time and get off because they can afford a good lawyer and those the get jail time because they don’t have a good lawyer and didn’t even do the crime or it is justified in some way.

      What annoys me about the Czech is that he seems to be a highly privileged kick boxer star (therefore deemed to be a person of great importance in the eyes of politicians) person who screws up repeatedly into criminal behaviour and our bungling immigration system and poor judgement from our government ministers, gives him another free pass at the expense of the taxpayers struggling in NZ and when he has ABUNDANT other options once deported, where is exactly he should be and never allowed in NZ again. Will the NZ government get it right, or are they going to rub people’s noses in it, again, by allowing this guy to stay on humanitarian grounds or being a nark! What a crock!

      Any migrant who ends up in jail should have their assets seized like the do to Kiwis and that pays for their stay. Aka his share of that 2 million Remuera mansion paid back to the justice system and then he be deported with his own assets paying for his deportation.

      The courts seem to have no issue taking from Kiwi criminals but then are happy allowing migrant criminals to profit from living here, even if they are costing hundreds of thousands in prison and stealing from others or illegally speculating on property.

      Why is our government so interested in supporting rich migrant bludgers and giving them the red carpet treatment for residency while throwing away the key to their own people, who some of in jail never knew a day of privilege in their entire lives and the state probably has a lot of blame in the situation if they were in care during their youth????

    • So no responsd from Jays? I guess this issue was too taxinb for his limited cranial capacity. Aside ftom a couple of knee jerks, that appears to be the limit of his “reasoning”. Poor Jays, no way for him to get back to the Victorian Era.

  4. So, Jays, let’s say you join a demonstration against a government because it has started arresting and jailing dissidents. This policy includes stripping them of citizenship and the right to vote. Let’s say you are arrested and jailed under this policy, and that you won’t mind never being able to vote again. Right?

    • Don’t worry, they will get the soft former Nat voters, or swing voters, primarily females from the middle class suburbs will vote for them, mainly because of ‘Jacinda Dear’.

      Labour have again betrayed their activists, who they always appeal to for help for when in crisis, and before and election. Conveniently used and abused, again and again, it seems.

      • Its called a trade off Marc you cant get your way all of the time unless you have the numbers that is why the RMA changes weren’t passed the gnatties didn’t have the support to get it passed as Cullen and the Maori party would not support the changes.

  5. Excellent analysis Frank. For Labour to be so dismissive of something as critical as the right to vote beggars belief. Its the sott of crap we came to expect ftom the Nats, not from a supposedly progressive party. This is disappointing to put it mildly.

    Come on Andrew Little, GET SOME GUTS!!

  6. Maybe Winston does not like prisoners being allowed to vote? He can put the brake on almost anything, as I observe it.

  7. Another (very good) example of the political system as an idiot. I think those who reject it altogether are ahead of the rest of us – they’re part of a class but probably not yet class conscious. This points to real change (more than reform) coming about from class conscious workers acting together to throw away the old systems that exploit them.

  8. Great work @ FM. Diligent and in-depth.
    Poor old @ JAYS has been a victim of crime, or knows someone close to her/him who has been, in my opinion. If that IS the case, I can understand the blind rage. That’s why criminals and criminality has to be overseen by people who’ve been intellectually and emotionally unaffected by the direct impact of criminals. Watching the hanging of the murderer of the hangman’s sister would prove to be a very messy hanging and no doubt a real crowd pleaser. That was a metaphor.
    Unfortunately, that disqualifies every single one of us Kiwi’s. We’ve ALL been fucked over. And the real criminals are still at large creating, by the terrible power of money in the hands of psychopaths, ever more criminals. Their weapon of choice is poverty and poverty in a rich country has its toxic roots spreading out from the Bankster industry and it’s the banksters who manufacture the poor bastards who, more often than not, get dehumanised in torture chambers aka NZ?AO’s ‘ corrections’ institutions. Causation is simple, the symptoms are horrible and complex. Prisoners must be able to vote. They’re human beings, it is their right. Denying them the ability to do so is inhuman and sooo 16th century.
    Years ago. And I mean like 25 years ago, I read about a prison trial in Spain. I’m sorry but I can’t offer up any more details than that at this point.
    The gist of it was that when a prisoner was imprisoned, they were kept in comfort and treated well. Were given good food and allowed to have visitors, were educated, could read, watch film and television and earn money equal to non prisoners.
    Recidivism fell away alarmingly. A bit like Portugal and its drug policy. All drugs are decriminalised and reclassified as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Drug related crimes have plummeted, as has addictions and death caused by overdose.
    That will never happen here until we learn to see the real criminals hiding in plain sight. Big and shiny and reaching into your subconscious via their weapon of choice, the MSM. I just looked at a piece of land and a dwelling for sale in Titirangi. The ‘ dwelling’ is a converted double garage with a sleep out and I can have that little piece of paradise for more than half a million dollars. Who’re the criminals again, sorry? Not sorry.

  9. What is the rationale behind prisoners being excluded from voting? Apart from further punishment and political grandstanding for the harsher sentencing brigade, that is.

    The call could be to repeal Quinn’s under 3 year imprisonment bill. But why stop there; why not give all prisoners the vote? That would take away any drive to lock up people for political reasons.

  10. Thank you for an excellent article Frank. This fundamentally anti-democratic piece of National Party electoral gerrymandering should be repealed promptly.

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