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

1977 – 1984: Establishment of formal operational and legislative frameworks

1977, which responds to a verbal request for advice by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.21 The Prime Minister’s Department assessed that New Zealand was not immune from the risk of terrorism and that there was an urgent “need for preparation”;22

so far it [terrorism] has not hit New Zealand but it could do so. Indeed, the increasing effectiveness of preventative security measures now undertaken in Europe and elsewhere could encourage terrorist groups to look to other parts of the western community where security arrangements have not been so well developed.23

In practice, police and intelligence agencies had already forged ahead with precautionary measures, having focused strategic attention on international terrorism and begun tightening airport security and training specialist squads.24 MFAT’s coverage of terrorism also predate the report, noting that negotiations at the UN were already stalemating. In 1978, the issue was described as already having “a somewhat chequered history.”25 Attention was therefore focused on establishing leadership arrangements that secured the cooperation of government agencies, and clearly assigned responsibilities in emergency situations.26 A number of groups were established; notably, the Cabinet Committee on Terrorism (CCOT) and the Officials Committee on Terrorism (OCOT) were formed to lead New Zealand’s policy response, and the Terrorist Intelligence Centre (TIC)27 was tasked with developing a research capability that could continually assess the threat of terrorism as part of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS).28 These foundational documents reveal that operationally, New Zealand has always taken a pragmatic approach to terrorism, but from its outset, the policy response has been playing catch up.

The TIC assessments from 1978 and 1979 set a precedent as to tone; while New Zealand could never be free from risk, the risk that it did carry was lower than other states. In a report on hostage situations, the TIC introduced terrorism as being “so world-wide that no country can be regarded as immune from some form of terrorist activity.”29 However, it concluded that “New Zealand is fortunate in that, apart from its geographical isolation, it nurtures no infrastructure of currently operating international terrorist groups with which to link in the organisation of a sophisticated and carefully planned terrorist attack.”30 Similarly, in January 1979, the TIC advised that if a risk did present itself, the abovementioned precautionary measures, legal confirmation that Defence could support Police in terrorist incidents, and media coverage of operational capabilities went, part of the way in serving as a deterrent to possible terrorist incursions into New Zealand. Whilst many countries have taken precautions to oppose terrorism, few are better prepared to deal with terrorist incidents than New Zealand.31