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

(3) the attacks of 11 September 2001 (9/11) and the development of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, (4) the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/IS/ISIS or Daesh) and the emergence of the foreign terrorist fighter issue, and (5) the reaction to domestic right-wing extremism and the threat posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters after ISIL’s reverses from 2017. This study finds that New Zealand’s legislation is highly reactive, driven by the need to fulfil international obligations and responses after the fact to significant events. The government legislative approach is underscored by a lack of appetite to consistently review and revitalise its legislation to ensure it meets developing challenges and a sense of complacency towards the risk of terrorism. Despite ongoing distractions stemming from COVID-19, opportunities for change are afoot. The question now becomes whether the New Zealand Government will turn over a new leaf in its counterterrorism effort, or whether it will continue to shy away from the work required to make meaningful change.


The approach taken here has been to locate and access documentary records held at Archives New Zealand or from relevant government agencies relating to terrorism legislation and to subject them to critical analysis, isolating themes relating to impetus and rationale for change (or inertia), as well as the nature and process of actual legislative development since a start date of 1977. The key types of documents include Cabinet Committee communications, reporting from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), Select Committee Reports, draft bills from Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) and Hansard. At Archives New Zealand, holdings were identified by using the search terms ‘terrorism,’ ‘terrorist,’ and ‘violent extremism.’ Files that were identified and classified as ‘unrestricted’ were worked through chronologically. Relevant documents released after 2007 have been found online and are publicly available. To analyse the drivers of change in New Zealand’s legislative approach to terrorism, findings have been grouped chronologically into five key phases. These phases are determined primarily by significant domestic or international events, so that approaches to legislating terrorism can be assessed as a bi-partisan issue, where the contributions of both National and Labour-led Governments to the status quo are considered in terms of the challenges they confronted. The start date of 1977 marks the first formal decision by New Zealand to consider the need to address the problem of terrorism.