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Greens push Senate to allow prisoners to vote in Voice referendum

Dechlan Brennan -

Thousands of imprisoned First Nations people will be ineligible to vote in the upcoming Indigenous Voice referendum if amendments to the referendum machinery bill are voted down in the Senate.

The Greens have moved an amendment to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to allow incarcerated people to vote in the poll.  

People serving a prison sentence of more than three years are currently ineligible to vote in federal elections and referendums. Those sentenced to less than three years, or who are currently on early release or on parole, are eligible.

The latest data shows that of the more than 42,000 people incarcerated in Australia, 13,000 are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Greens' Indigenous Affairs spokesperson, Noongar and Yamatji senator Dorinda Cox, told National Indigenous Times: “there has never been more an important time to allow those who will be most affected by the Voice to Parliament referendum to vote”.

“Voting is a right. Restricting the rights of people in prison disproportionately affects marginalised communities, including First Nations people who are over-incarcerated and underrepresented on the electoral roll,” she said.

Progressive think tank Get Up’s chief executive, Widjabul Wia-bal woman Larissa Baldwin-Roberts, said in a changing the Act and allowing every Australian to vote would “give thousands of First Nations people across the country the right to vote in a referendum that is all about our vision for our communities”.

“We cannot have a referendum that directly impacts First Nations communities, without first ensuring every eligible First Nations person can vote on it,” she said.

Human rights law expert and Kurin Minang Noongar woman Hannah McGlade told National Indigenous Times that “everyone should vote.”

“We mustn’t keep going down the U.S [United States] path of punishing people for life,” Dr McGlade said.

Around 97 per cent of Australians are enrolled to vote, however this figure drops to just 84.5 percent for First Nations people.

Senator Cox says improving accessibility for First Nations communities will “give the Voice referendum the greatest chance of success”.

“We want to and our amendments for on-the-day enrolment, expanding phone voting and removing restrictions that prevent prisoners from voting will ensure more First Nations voices are heard and counted,” she said.

“The Australian Electoral Commission supports extending on-the-day enrolment for the referendum, and there’s no reason not to do this.”

The AEC has seen an increase of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people registering to vote in the past six months, with 21,000 more people having enrolled by December 2022.

Jesuits Social Services described being denied the right to vote while in prison at odds with the “rehabilitative vision”.

The voting rights of prisoners have been found to be protected by the High Court for inmates serving sentences under three years.

In Roach v Electoral Commissioner (2007)- brought by Yuin woman Vicki Roach – the court found that an amendment made by the Howard government to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 a year earlier to ban prisoners from voting was both unlawful and unconstitutional.

At the time, the government’s Special Minister of State Gary Nairn stated “it was the government's view that if you've been taken out of society because you've offended the laws of society, part of losing your rights to live in the community should include your capacity to vote."

The significant over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people currently behind bars is seen as one of the main impediments to voting enrolment and participation in elections. The data shows First Nations people are far more likely to encounter the police and be incarcerated at numbers unlike any other demographic.

Other barriers include the requirements for documentation that some Indigenous people do not have and the AEC currently not using auto-enrolment processes in some parts of remote Australia.

There are several amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 being debated in the senate, including rules around advertising, the fact-checking process in the referendum pamphlets and a proposal to allow telephone voting.

The Senate may vote on the Bill this week.


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