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NZ must adapt to evolving terror threat, study finds

30 November 2018 - By Lynda Hagen

New Zealand can’t be complacent about potential future terrorism threats: terrorism is constantly evolving, and we need to be prepared for the next wave, whatever form it comes in.

That’s the view of Professor Alexander Gillespie of the University of Waikato, who has co-written a Law Foundation-funded study of New Zealand’s responses to the War on Terror, with Associate Professor Claire Breen, also of Waikato.

He says New Zealand is relatively well-prepared for current terror threats, with a strong set of laws, effective institutions, and good safeguards to prevent abuse of the intrusive State power necessary to combat terrorism. But, he says, we need to remain vigilant, and constantly ready to adapt.

“Terrorism, as caused by groups like Islamic State, is just one current threat. This wave will pass, but others will take its place, and the lines between terror groups, hate groups of all flavours and other problems like mass killers will probably change too.

“We need to be ready for the next wave, in whatever form it comes, and not be stuck in thinking that terrorism comes in only one type that we have beaten. To keep society safe, and with legal and political integrity, we cannot be complacent,” he says.

New Zealand now understands and accepts principles like freedom of speech and freedom to protest much better than in the past. Crimes like sedition (speech that incites rebellion) no longer exist.

“We have evolved some fairly strong anti-terror laws, but these have many more checks and balances in them than in the past,” Professor Gillespie says. “Organisations like the SIS, the GCSB and the Police operate in the light, with safeguards to prevent abuse. We need to be vigilant in all these areas – political questions will always be asked, but the trend is positive.”

New Zealand not immune

Freedom of speech and censorship were examples of law adapting well to current realities.

“It’s under censorship laws that some of the most important convictions for would-be Jihadis have been made, for their use and propagation of ISIS violence,” he says. “In an age where we have become increasingly liberal on what can be said, it is good that we are also ensuring that this does not extend to amplifying propaganda for terrorism.”

Since the end of the 19th Century, New Zealand has reflected international trends in responding to terrorism, Professor Gillespie says. We have not had terrorism in the form experienced by other countries, but we have come close.

“Periods where we have experienced what might today be considered terrorism, or close to it, occurred in times of civil dissent. Examples included labour disputes in 1913, the 1951 waterfront strike, or issues like the 1981 Springbok tour and bombings in 1984 and 1985. Looking further back, dissent, conflict and violence collided in the 19th Century land wars.

“In all instances, law and policy evolved, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Today, we are back on a more positive path.”

Law and policy has evolved consistently, but often only as part of a much larger social response. This included everything from foreign policy alliances to clandestine service and human rights including freedoms of speech, assembly and association.

The research has found that New Zealand is much more tolerant, liberal and balanced in its fight against terrorism than in the past. Although there will be challenges in future, the tools for dealing with them are better.

The research is due to be published in 2019 in a book provisionally titled Law and Power in Times of Stress in New Zealand.


Lynda Hagen lynda@lawfoundation.org.nz is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Last updated on the 30th November 2018