Is Australian
civilisation going backwards? In the same week as the European Court of
Human Rights rules that a law excluding British prisoners from the
right to vote violated the Human Rights Convention and should be
reversed, the Howard Government announces its intention to strip Australian prisoners’ right to vote as part of its proposed changes to electoral laws.

As The Guardian
reported yesterday, the Strasbourg court ruled – on a majority ruling
of 12-5 – that an article in the convention guaranteeing the “free
expression of the opinion of the people in choosing a legislature” was
not absolute, but in a 21st century democracy the presumption should be
in favour of inclusion. Yet judging by the modifications laid out on
Tuesday by the Special Minster of State, Senator Eric Abetz , the
Howard Government begs to differ.

It’s a change to electoral
law that would be “wrong for so many reasons,” says Brett Collins from
NSW-based prisoner advocacy group Justice Action. “Democracy is
inherently inclusive and must be, otherwise it is faulty and
dangerous,” Collins tells Crikey.

Removing the right to vote
from Australia’s prison community – roughly 23,000 people – is
“effectively telling them no one wants to listen to them,” says
Collins. “It’s telling them they’re no longer a part of the
community… but they have homes, families and lives outside prison and
99.9% go back into the community.”

Even more importantly, he
says, it would remove the right to take part in the election of
governments, the lawmakers, from precisely those people whose lives
are completely ruled by the law, which could create an “outlaw effect” – “where
these people think “f*ck your laws… we’re not part of your community,
you told us that, so we’re not going to follow your laws.”

He seems to have a point – so what exactly is the government’s rationale?