• Vickie Roach courageously took on the electoral commission and helped to amend a law passed by the Howard Govt which took voting rights away from prisoners (SBS)Source: SBS
Vickie Roach overcame incredible odds to be a champion for the voices of inmates and First Nations people, but now she refuses to take part in the voting system.
Emily Nicol

13 May 2022 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2022 - 4:36 PM

In 2006, Facebook and Twitter had just launched, Shakira was dominating the airwaves, Pirates of The Caribbean was the biggest movie at the box office, and the Howard government were also pulling out their own pre-election power moves.

One of these was a constitutional change,  which ultimately banned all prisoners from voting. 

It was a move that outraged Yuin woman Vickie Roach, herself an inmate serving a sentence at the time, and she decided to come up with a plan.

A prisoner of the system

47 years old at the time, Vickie was serving a sentence at the Dame Phyllis Frost Women's Prison for ‘recklessly causing injury’ whilst driving a getaway vehicle under the influence of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol in 2004.

It was a six-year sentence, and the last she would serve after years clocking up multiple misdemeanours and convictions between 1976 and 2003.

Speaking to NITV in 2018, Roach said that her trajectory was due to the system she was forced into.

After being taken from her mother at the age of two, life had a rough start.

“There's one particular time that I specifically remember, where they said that I had antecedents going back to 1961, which, of course, is when I was two," she said.

"So, in the court's eyes, I had been a criminal since I was two.

"That first charge set the course for my life, and negatively influenced the way I was viewed by police and other authorities from then on."

Her first time behind bars was a six-month stint in an adult jail at the age of 17 on self-admission of using a prohibited drug.

But it was whilst serving time at Phyllis Frost that she decided to take control of her life, undertaking a Masters degree in professional writing and becoming more politically and socially aware.

This was also the period when she began her own David and Goliath battle.

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Vickie vs The Law

Investing thousands in her own money, and supported free-of-charge by top QC's and the Human Rights Law Resource Centre, Roach sought to mount a legal challenge against the Howard government's amendment to the Electoral Act of 1918 which would ‘prohibit all imprisoned people from voting in federal elections’.

Before the 2006 amendment, only prisoners serving more than a three-year sentence were banned from voting.

"She's personally very interested and committed to prisoners' rights and political participation, and particularly the rights of Indigenous people," Human Rights Law Resource Centre director Philip Lynch said at the time of the case.

Roach argued that there should be a fundamental human right to have a vote, and that it should be a freedom given to all, with few exceptions, including those that are incarcerated. Her legal team agreed.

"We say that the… only rational and legitimate basis upon which the franchise (voting rights) can be limited under the constitution is on the basis of the person's (mental) capacity," Mr Lynch said.

"Prisoners, generally speaking, have that capacity."

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Roach v Electoral Commissioner eventually went to the High Court. In what was widely acknowledged as a landmark decision, a majority verdict was handed down that returned the right to vote to prisoners serving a sentence of 3 years or less. 

It stated that the ‘government had acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it imposed the blanket ban on prisoners voting.’

The verdict was accepted by the government, but speaking at the time Attorney General Phillip Ruddock said the result was 'disappointing.'

Roach and her legal team's actions mean that she was able to help prisoners regain voting rights, and in particular give that voice to First Nations peoples who have historically, and still are, overrepresented in the prison system.

At this time, Roach was still serving a prison term greater than the three-year threshold, which meant she herself was unable to vote in the 2007 election that eventually saw the Howard government removed, in a situation that her senior counsel Ron Merkel likened to that of Eddie Mabo.

"She lost her case in terms of her own right to vote but won the case for her own people and other prisoners who just happen to be in jail on election day not to be subject to this exclusion."

"Haven't voted in years"

Roach is now an established writer, senior client facilitator for Aboriginal women and the criminal justice system advocate, and has called for the abolition of the prison system.

Speaking to NITV, she says that her feelings about the voting system have changed dramatically since she fought to have her case heard, and that she no longer has any faith in the political process.

"I don’t’ believe there’s any truth in it anymore, or choice, and I think our politicians are chosen for us." Roach said.

She admits she hasn't voted since Tony Abbott was elected in 2013, and expresses frustration at what she sees as a flawed political system that isn't transparent and doesn't have voters best interests in mind.

"(Voting) seemed important at the time that I brought the case, but it was before I came to understand the way the world works. That realisation came gradually, something that comes with age I guess.” Roach says.

"What relevance does politics have to everyone’s lives? None. They just make it harder and concern themselves with making their own selves rich. 

"I’m a sovereign woman on unceded land. Why should I vote for an illegal government, or be fined for (not voting)?"

Explainer: Why 1962 changed voting in Australia forever
The democratic right of all Australians to enrol and vote in elections was not always in place. For decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and communities campaigned for the right to vote and be counted. Thanks to the struggle and efforts of our ancestors, in 1962, the law was changed to give voting rights to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia.