human rights news & views

Vicki Roach: ‘The Eddie Mabo of electoral law’

an Australian voter exercises their human right (photo: Dean Lewins)While she was inside, prison authorities refused to allow indigenous activist Vicki Roach to give media interviews about her remarkable 2007 High Court Constitutional challenge.  Instead, she wrote a letter to Anita Barraud of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation outlining some of her arguments:

"Excluding us from the democratic process while we are in prison, however short our stay might be, implies we have forfeited our right to political participation . . . I believe this serves only to further alienate us from society, and ensures that the exiting prisoner feels no connection, commitment or loyalty to his or her community, and may, therefore, not feel bound to respect its laws or social mores . . .

"As an Indigenous woman and a survivor of the Stolen Generation, I also believe the issue of voting rights is especially important to the Aboriginal community . . . If you consider that we make up 22% of Australia's prison population, while only 1% of the general population . . ."

Now free again, Roach gave her first interview to Barraud; here is an edited excerpt from Radio National's Law Report:

Roach: Once upon a time, all prisoners could vote.  Then [the Labor government disenfranchised everyone serving a sentence of 5 or more years.  Then conservative Prime Minister] John Howard brought it down from five years to three years, [then in 2006] to nothing, where no prisoner could vote.

. . . the Constitution says that the government must be chosen by the people.  'The people' is everybody.

To disenfranchise prisoners [on moral grounds] didn't make sense.  A convicted paedophile could get out the day before an election after serving 25 years, and vote, and yet somebody who couldn't afford to pay their fines would be in prison for two weeks wouldn't be able to vote.

Although denying a person the right to vote may be a symbolic type of exclusion, it's a very powerful one that says, 'You have no right to belong to this community, or this society.'

Barraud: You could argue that the right to belong has been taken away from you because you've done something wrong against society.

Roach: The penalty is your imprisonment.

Barraud: The judges did conclude in the end that a person who had committed a serious crime had lost their right to vote.

Roach: Yes, and they determine the seriousness of the crime by how long your sentence is.  Which again, is not fair, because sentencing is so disparate across different jurisdictions.

Barraud: How important was this case, do you think, for the Indigenous population in prison?

Roach: I believe in principle, it is hugely important.  Our people now have to take advantage of that and make our voice count.

Barraud: I'm trying to understand why, [although] you were taken away from your mother at two, [living on the streets from the age of 13, substance-addicted, in a violent relationship, and in and out of jail most of your adult life] with 125 convictions, petty crimes in the main . . .

Roach: Well in a way, you could call them survival crimes.

Barraud: I'm trying to understand what made you turn around and decide that this particular issue was really important, enough to mount a constitutional challenge?

Roach: Well, even though I was in prison, the things I was learning [in undergraduate and post-graduate studies], the things I was reading made me think: I don't want to be on the fringes any more, I want to belong to society, I want to be part of society.  [Yet] here I was being told that I didn't belong, I was excluded.

Okay, I've been in prison and I have led a criminal life, but I'm essentially, I believe, a good person.   I sincerely believe that if there [were] a greater emphasis on education in prisons, and making it more accessible to prisoners, you'd see a lot more success cases.


  1. 3 April 2009 | 3:59 pm

    If there were a greater emphasis on education in prisons, and making it more accessible to prisoners, you’d see a lot more constitutional challenges!

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