New Zealand’s Counter-terrorism Strategy: A Critical Assessment

Authors: Battersby, J., Ball, R., & Nelson, N.
Published in National Security Journal, 23 June 2020

Zealand’s Five Eyes partner nations have formally and physically endorsed their respective national strategy documents without exception. Is the New Zealand Government taking counterterrorism less seriously than its partners?

The logos of 14 government agencies are imprinted on page 2 of New Zealand’s strategy document, reflecting the ‘All of Government’ approach which has prevailed in New Zealand for some years now. This approach suggests coordination, integration and efficiency in resourcing between state agencies, but it has pitfalls too. In particular, Mesier argues that there is a risk ‘All of Government’ approaches may actually foster bad strategy because officials do not “have to think about what should be done to solve a national security problem, the answer is already there, no matter what the problem.”23 Such broad-based, comprehensive approaches, he adds, merely offer “a solution waiting to be applied to every problem.”24 The ‘All of Government’ approach is the pre-determined solution, leaving the more deep-seated actual extant problems unaddressed. In contrast to those of our Five Eyes partners, New Zealand’s strategy can be read in a few minutes. This brevity leaves the reader with more questions than answers in what appears to be a plethora of undeveloped policy directions. It leaves the strategy open to wide interpretation; it is a document that can ultimately mean anything anyone wants it to.

For a strategy to be understood, receive widespread approval, and be resourced, it must take into account and underpin a nation’s values. On page 1 of New Zealand’s strategy there is the isolated statement of “Standing together as a nation and championing our values against terrorism and violent extremism”25 without any discussion of what these values may be. A separate cabinet paper supporting this strategy noted that the way in which New Zealand responded to the Christchurch attack championed the values of “tolerance, democracy and unity”26, and that the aim is to “reinforce the values that were at the heart of our initial response.” But it is unclear whether, and how, these values have contributed to the development of the current strategy, let alone how might this strategy keep “New Zealanders safe by leveraging our high levels of trust.”27 Similarly, there is no clear articulation of national interests which bridge the link between values and goals.

By way of declaration of a strategic vision, New Zealand’s strategy has an aim (ends) section on page 2 and what are assumed to be a number of ‘abstract’ goals – reduction, readiness, response, recovery referred to in a separate cabinet document as pillars.28 The stated aim of the strategy “Bringing our nation together to protect all New Zealanders from terrorism and violent extremism of all kinds”29 is a broad, all-encompassing statement but one that raises a number of issues, key among them being what is meant by the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’. No international consensus exists on these terms, and New Zealand’s definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Suppression Act (2002) is convoluted, likely conceived without any real appreciation of how terrorism has evolved either nationally or internationally.30 The Ministry of Justice has recently reviewed the Suppression of Terrorism Act, including