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

Perception of terrorism in New Zealand

New Zealanders have naively overlooked domestic deliberate and planned violence that coincided with increased political messaging and activism since the 1970s.8 Whilst the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior sticks out,9 activist violence, a foiled Ananda Marga plot in 1975, bombings at the NZ Police Computer Centre in 1982, the Wellington Trades Hall in 1984, and the hijacking of an Air New Zealand flight in 1987, are not well remembered in the collective consciousness of New Zealanders.10 Post 9/11, New Zealand managed to avoid the rise in transnational and home-grown jihadi plots that emerged in Australia.11 However, contemporary domestic cases of potential terrorism such as Operation Eight (in which a range of activists were involved in apparent training camps) and the 2014 threat by a lone actor to contaminate baby formula unless the use of 1080 ceased, have, according to Battersby, been effectively granted “invisibility in law” due to the inability to charge what were arguably terrorist acts under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.12 Through being prosecuted under existing criminal law, potential terrorist events have resonated less with the public.13 The media deemed the Christchurch mosques attacks as the “end of New Zealand’s innocence.”14 Battersby argues New Zealanders were simply caught off-guard due to a faded collective memory of a chequered terrorist past,15 given that New Zealand has had a “lengthy history of autonomous actors, mostly unconnected to each other, thoroughly exploiting our complacency.”16 This historic illiteracy, has led to the public collectively holding an erroneous perception of little or no domestic terrorism prior to the Christchurch attacks.

New Zealand has been described as being a “fast follower” and “assiduous” in implementing international terrorism obligations.17 In order to ensure compliance as quickly as possible, Parliament has at times explicitly used international obligations to justify the manipulation of legislative processes or expedited them under urgency.18 Outside of this context, New Zealand governments have historically lacked appetite to engage with CT legislation. Practitioners have experienced frustration over perceived complacency; progress on domestic CT matters has been considered “glacial” and required “enormous political capital” in a low threat environment, as terrorism has been largely perceived as a foreign threat.19 Terry Johannsen suggests that the structural control of the national security discourse by the Prime Minister prevents a ‘sub-discourse’ from robustly challenging views within the ODESC system.20 It has been argued in New Zealand that there is no need for specific legislation to address terrorism and that the criminal law is sufficient. But many other countries have felt the need to do so, not just to prosecute offenders but to empower security agencies to intercept or prevent terrorist acts from occurring. UNSC resolutions also tend toward an expectation that specific legislation to address terrorism will be enacted. This article explores New Zealand’s experience of specific terrorism-oriented legislation.