With Christchurch still shaking and the economy stalled, you might have thought the National Government had better things to do than sit around the camp fire inventing new and twisted ways of pulling the wings off prisoners.

First it was housing them in shipping containers. Then they gave notice of a total smoking ban in our jails - but only for the incarcerated. The guards - and the minister - will be free to loiter on the other side of the bars, puffing smoke in the face of the guilty ones.

Now, National list MP Paul Quinn has emerged from obscurity to persuade the National and Act majority on the parliamentary law and order committee - disgraced Act MP David Garrett amongst them - to support his private members bill stripping the right to vote from all prisoners.

When I stray on to talkback radio, hosts and callers alike often seem to have no idea about the issue they're raving on about, yet their vote, come election day, is considered just as valuable as mine. It doesn't seem fair.

And why stop there. What about parliamentarians who steal dead babies' identities, or dip too deeply into the public purse for free flights around the world. Or recidivist drunk drivers? Do I really want my ballot paper rubbing up against theirs?

Given the mood of the backwoodsmen and women on this committee, perhaps I shouldn't be giving them more ideas. I certainly shouldn't draw their attention to the good old days when only property owners could vote. And the menfolk.

Or alert them to the not so recent past in the American South, where spurious knowledge tests were employed to exclude African Americans from the process.

However, if former Treasury analyst Mr Quinn were to venture out of his economic textbooks, he might discover that a democracy based on universal suffrage is the form of governance that has evolved in countries of our kind, and that however much we might roll our eyes at some of the more odious views and actions of those we disagree with, it's proved to be a more resilient, and fairer, system of governance than any other on offer.

Prisoner suffrage has had a shaky past in this country. Between 1956 and 1975, and again from 1977 to 1993, prisoners could not vote.

Since then, the law bans anyone imprisoned for three years or more from voting. Even though that arbitrary rule is questionable, the law and order committee wants to return to the harsher regime of the past, despite opposition from, among others, the Attorney-General, the Law Society and the Human Rights Commission. All have highlighted its inconsistency with the Bill of Rights and various international treaties.

Law Society Human Rights committee member Frances Joychild told the committee earlier this year that removing the right to vote was punishment on top of punishment. She said "It is critical for the function of our democracy that we do not interfere with the right to vote."

She subsequently noted that "every comparable overseas jurisdiction has had a blanket ban struck down in the last 10 years". You cannot blanket ban anyone who crosses the prison door whether it's one day or three years, because it's arbitrary. The European Court of Human Rights, which basically ordered the United Kingdom to get rid of its blanket ban, the Canadian Supreme Court, the Australian High Court and the South African Constitutional Court have all said that the right to vote is a fundamental right affecting the health of our democracy.

The Human Rights Commission echoed this, calling "the right to vote in elections, without discrimination, ... one of the most fundamental of human rights and civil liberties." Arguing that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment, the commission said "disenfranchisement has no proven deterrent effect and it can actively undermine the ability of prisoners to engage constructively with the very society to which they will be released when discharged and, thus, their eventual social rehabilitation."

It dismissed as flawed the argument that prisoners had broken a "social contract" by breaking society's rules, and therefore had forfeited the benefits of society, including the right to vote.

The commission argued that "modern democracies are based on the concept that all people - including prisoners - have rights simply by virtue of their common humanity" and therefore, "to disregard their right to vote becomes a fundamental breach of the social contract".

The commission also argued that because Maori are disproportionately represented in the prison population, Maori men accounting for 45 per cent of the male prison population and Maori females 60 per cent of female prisoners, a blanket ban would be indirect discrimination against Maori.

The bill is an embarrassment, not least to the Government. The sooner it wipes its hands of its Tea Party faction and their bill, the better for everyone.