Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Just before the election, in a fairly transparent display of kicking criminals for votes, the government introduced the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims (Redirecting Prisoner Compensation) Amendment Bill to the House. As the title suggests, the bill amends the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act to remove any possibility of abused prisoners receiving financial compensation, regardless of the severity of the abuse. As convicted criminals, they will have no rights.

Today, the Attorney-General found that to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF] and with our obligations under international law. Their reasoning is worth repeating:

Enjoyment of the basic human rights is the entitlement of every citizen. Denial of an effective remedy to a particular group of society excludes that group from the protection of the Bill of Rights Act.

The exclusion of prisoners from the protections of the rights affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act is objectionable. Prisoners are subject to the day to day control and exercise of coercive power by the state, and as such are especially vulnerable to misuse of state power.

This group's position is recognised by rights relating to those in custody in s23(5), which provides that everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person. Denying prisoners the effective protection of the rights affirmed in s 23, specially enacted for their protection, is unjustifiable.

Sadly, I expect the National Party, driven by a desire to grub votes by pandering to the "hang 'em high" brigade, will ignore this. Which neatly highlights the problem with the Bill of Rights Act: it is predicated on MPs doing their jobs, and taking s7 reports seriously as a warning to stop and think before passing a law. They don't. Very few debates on bills subject to a s7 report engage with the human rights concerns raised, and Ministers seem to regard such reports as a sign they're "tough", a badge of honour rather than an indictment.

If Parliament won't do its job as the guardian of our rights, its time we took it off them and gave it to the courts by entrenching the BORA as supreme law. Politicians have shown that they cannot be trusted. Judges can be. At the least, they have to give reasons - which is more than our politicians ever do.