The Ghost of New Zealand’s Terrorism Past and Present

Author: Battersby, J. M.
Published in National Security Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 2019

It is not the first time lives have been lost, nor the first time New Zealand has experienced a completely unexpected act, and been left wondering why and how it happened.

This paper therefore lays out New Zealand’s history of terrorism – of violence or threats perpetrated in an attempt to influence the social and political environment. It is a history New Zealanders have preferred to ignore, because in part they have been prepared to tolerate and forgive terrorism. New Zealand has not previously prosecuted any perpetrator for committing a ‘terrorist act’, allowing terrorism an invisibility in law, leading to a fading collective memory of it. If New Zealanders were caught unawares on 15 March 2019, it was at least partly due to a tendency to block out the terrorism from their past, and then pretend they had no current problem because they had no previous one.

The beginnings of modern terrorism in New Zealand

The decade of the 1970s saw a significant surge in terrorism internationally comprising mainly bombings, aircraft hijackings and the taking of hostages.1 This terrorism aimed at displays of violence rather than killing large numbers of people. While people were killed, human casualties were generally low and sometimes avoided altogether.2 Amid this context, the involvement of the US, along with its ANZUS allies, in the Vietnam War, prompted widespread public protest in all three countries, eventually culminating in incidents of deliberate violence. In 1969 four men, despite a clumsy set of preparations, succeeded in detonating a gelignite bomb at the Waitangi Flagstaff. Their actions were motivated by the perception that peaceful protest against Vietnam was getting them nowhere so they “had to bring the war home.”3

Contemporary activist Tim Shadbolt described what followed as “one of the worst outbreaks of bombing that this country has seen.” Over a dozen bombings occurred in 1970 alone targeting mainly military bases and government buildings. The bombings tapered off afterwards, but continued until New Zealand’s decision to withdraw from the war.4 Only a few perpetrators were caught, and they were charged and convicted for arson. John Bower, convicted of bombing an RNZAF depot in Auckland in 1970, gave a press interview 40 years later. He explained “My rationale, they’re dropping bombs in Vietnam, you can have one here yourself…”5 This was similar to the justification Shadbolt gave to the bombings at the time, that it was a reaction to protests being ignored, a need to increase pressure on an apathetic population and a non-responsive government that prompted them. Shadbolt claimed opposition to the bombing, but he was equivocal:

“No, I don’t agree with bombing. But if I did I’d bomb and bomb hard. Bomb every troop train, every munitions cargo, and every supply boat that left for Vietnam.
I believe that what you have to do is blow people’s minds. This is a political war more than a military one.”6