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

These free and frank discussions infer that the risk of terrorism has always been considered remote and one that could be managed through visible CT structures.

By the end of 1979, officials appeared comfortable that New Zealand was performing at a high-level internationally. However, a critical report assessing New Zealand’s state of readiness adjusted this perception in September 1982.32 In this report Prime Minister Muldoon noted that New Zealand did not have powers that could control the media in an emergency situation. This was prompted by the Prince’s Gate operation in London, where the media’s coverage of the Iranian Embassy siege by gunmen from the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan almost revealed the operational tactics used by the police to the terrorists.33 The report concluded that in a terrorist emergency, government would only have sufficient emergency response powers if they chose to invoke the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932 (PSCA). However, the PSCA was described as cumbersome, heavy-handed, and required the Governor-General to declare a state of emergency, which could be legally challenged.34 Controversially, under the PSCA, once a state of emergency was announced, the Executive could enact any regulation that ensured “public safety and order and the life of the community.”35 Even then however, the powers available were deficient in regards to media censorship.

Officials considered “there was a need for a widely drafted purpose-built Act,”36 and were directed to prepare legislative proposals as a matter of priority:

There was a degree of urgency in preparing this legislation because of the Executive’s knowledge that it was not adequately prepared for a major terrorist incident until such legislative authority was held (coupled with the planning, machinery, and personnel already in place).37

Also of note, the challenges inherent in defining terrorism were officially acknowledged for the first time; “there may be some difficulty in defining ‘the trigger mechanisms’ that would be required to be in place” for the emergency powers to be used.38 In the report, the CCOT requested an assessment of the likelihood of an attack in New Zealand in September 1982. Officials responded,

A considered opinion was that there was a “very low” probability of any act of terrorism taking place on NZ soil. … Up until 1977 officials would have judged this country as being a “soft target” for terrorists. … By strategically releasing general outlines of the fact that New Zealand was able to counter a terrorist incident, without specific details of operational capabilities, this acted as a deterrent to terrorists selecting this country as a target.39