From Hijackings to Right-Wing Extremism: The Drivers of New Zealand’s Counter-terrorism Legislation 1977 – 2020

Author: Webb, Sheridan
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2021

risk. While it is clear that New Zealand takes its participation in the international rules-based system seriously, meeting the minimum requirements of UNSC resolutions has effectively became New Zealand’s leading driver of terrorism legislation following 9/11.

Secondly, New Zealand’s legislative change is very reactive. If legislation has not been developed in response to UN obligations, it is due to an event of some magnitude. The one exception to New Zealand’s reactivity is when a statutory or Cabinet-directed review has been required. John Ip argues that CT legislation is often enacted in the aftermath of terrorist attacks at the executive’s demand to reassure the public that terrorism risks have been addressed.118 An example of this was the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act, while Cabinet directed officials to draft a bill in 1982, it was not until after the 1985 Rainbow Warrior bombing that it was progressed. Given the central censorship provisions were watered down to be voluntary however, this legislation is best seen as a ‘show’ of action rather than of definite substance during a period of significant scrutiny.

In response to 9/11, MFAT advised that it was “highly desirable” to promptly enact the Bombings and Financing Bill to signal New Zealand’s strong condemnation of the at­tack.119 While the intended audience in this context was the international community, the same rationale applies. Given that progressing CT legislation was not a 2017 Labour campaign promise, the government’s response to the Christchurch attacks illustrates clear reactivity. The speed in which this reaction occurred was designed to demonstrate outwardly that the government could act decisively on terrorism matters domestically and internationally. Changes to the Arms Act were quickly implemented – but the his­toric theme remains, almost 2 years after the 15 March 2019 attacks – there has been no change to the TSA. The Ardern Government is at a cross roads, with considerable time already having passed, and with the COVID-19 pandemic prevailing as the main security concern with massive fiscal implications an important question remains – can it move beyond a mere acceptance in principle of the RCOI’s recommendations, or will momentum stall as it has so often before?120

Despite the government’s rhetoric, the latter outcome is clearly feasible. Brenton Tarrant’s guilty plea spared the TSA it’s test case in court and Tarrant himself gave up his opportunity to exploit the hearing process in the manner that Anders Brevik did. In meantime, COVID-19 dominates globally, pushing terrorism from international media attention generally, and suppressing what limited interest there has only ever been in New Zealand for proactive change to terrorism legislation. Events subsequent to Operation-Eight provide a precedent for this outcome; in 2007 the SG clearly expressed that the TSA required re-assessment. This position attracted cross-party support and the matter was referred to the Law Commission. While the Operation-Eight trials initially stalled legislative developments, ultimately the GFC dominated government priorities – a very similar situation prevails today. Despite the existence of a Cabinet mandated CT strategy, the strategy received no publicity at its launch in February 2020