In the wake of yesterday’s terrorist attack in a supermarket in Auckland, I’m seeing a lot if ignorance being expressed in online comments. And while most of the criticism is from right leaning, pro gun, anti immigration, pro Trump, American exceptionalism groups, I see see plenty of misinformation from all quarters being thrown about with abandon, including some from within Aotearoa New Zealand.
The fact of the matter is, that even a day later, some information is sketchy, and will take some time for all the facts to emerge. While the government has successfully appealed a court ordered prohibition on some information regarding the terrorist, the court has required that his family have the opportunity to review that decision. So there is at least a 24 hour delay in some information becoming public. The government does not have the right to do as it pleases, hence the title of this post.
The government, as is every person and legal entity in this country is bound by the rule of law, and thankfully, in this nation there are no exceptions. This post is an opinion piece, and given my own biases and lack of the full facts, it should be treated that way. I have no intention that my interpretation of the facts based on the limited information available to me at this moment should be viewed as The Truth™.
We now know that the individual in question was on a terrorist watch list and was under close 24 hour close surveillance and had been for many months since being released from prison. He was surveillance averse, paranoid even, so it was necessary to ensure that the surveillance was as invisible as possible. At times that took the resources of up to thirty undercover agents at any time to avoid detection by that person. Enter covid. Given the current Level 4 lockdown in Auckland and lack of crowded environments, tailing an individual who is surveillance averse must present a number of problems if the intent is to hide the fact that surveillance is indeed being carried out.
The individual travelled by train from his home, then walked to the supermarket while being monitored all the while. Under level 4 lockdown, supermarkets strictly limit the number of shoppers allowed inside, so any “spy” nearby would be readily apparent to the individual. Therefore there were times when they were not in his immediate vicinity or in the same aisle as the individual. It was on such an occasion that the individual took a carving knife from a shelf display and he started his very short terror attack.
The most frequent question raised online has been why was the individual allowed to roam free. To this I say look at the title of this post. As it currently stands, there is no law that prohibits thinking about or planning terrorist attacks. An act of terrorism needs to have occurred or be under way. The current laws on terrorism suppression was enacted in 2002 in wake of the 9/11 attack in the USA, and due to the haste (by NZ standards) in which it was drafted has proved to be deficient. The 2007 New Zealand police raids in the Ureweras is ample evidence of this.
The terrorist had spent time in prison for the illegal possession of a knife and for possessing objectionable material (I presume extreme ISIS publications). The authorities had applied to the court for detention under existing terrorist suppression laws and/or alternatively GPS monitoring. These were declined by the court, which described the inability to detain those who were thinking about or planning an attack as the “Achilles’ heel” of the existing suppression laws.
And here is where I fail to understand the logic of some comments. On the one hand some say that the individual in question should have been locked up and the key thrown away, or deported, while on the other hand the claiming that the government has not got the right to limit their right to carry firearms while out and about in the community. Again I point to the title of this post.
Balancing the freedom of expression against the internal security of a nation is never going to be easy, and what puzzles me is why so many on the right and left demand their right to freedom of expression for themselves while demanding the suppression of those holding opposite views. Arbitrarily detaining someone or deporting them must never be allowed to happen. Never. Why can’t the critics understand this?
My point is that freedoms depend on those in authority acting only in accordance with the law. We saw a less dramatic case in the previous Labour led government when the minister in charge of granting oil exploration licences granted such a licence even though the Green Party, of which she was a member, strongly opposed oil exploration. She was strongly criticised by the environmentalists, some demanding her resignation. As was explained at the time, irrespective of her personal wishes, she was required to grant licences where all the requirements of such a licence had been met. They were. So her hands were tied. Her personal wishes or those of her political party were irrelevant. End of story.
Back to terrorism. Among the findings of the commission set up to investigate the Christchurch Mosque shootings was a recommendation that laws relating to the suppression of terrorism be strengthened, and of course many promoters of civil liberties, freedom of expression of all political persuasions expressed their concern about any move that might limit our freedoms. Even our Human Rights Commission had much to say on this. That is as it should be.
After considerable discussion, proposed changes were then drafted. If the authorities are to be prevented from acting from malice, over enthusiasm, or unintentionally restricting our freedoms, while the law being “fit for purpose” then proposed legislation will require careful consideration, with every T crossed and I dotted before it is presented to Parliament. I’m not surprised that that the drafting took more than six months.
Earlier this year, the bill was presented to Parliament, and as is standard practice here in Aotearoa New Zealand, after the first reading the bill was referred to a Parliamentary select committee. The select committee process can take considerable time – typically six to nine months. Any person who has an interest in the bill has the right to present a written and/or oral submission. After all submissions have been presented, the committee reports the bill, its findings and any recommended amendments back to Parliament for a second reading.
New Zealand Parliamentary Select Committees are somewhat unusual in that their decisions are generally by consensus. It is not a place for partisanship. Occasionally a consensus can not be reached in which case dissenting views are also presented to Parliament. I appreciate such a practice would be unworkable in some jurisdictions (I’m looking of you, America). It requires good faith discussion and accepting that compromise is a necessary part of politics.
The Prime Minister has had discussions with the leader of the Opposition who has agreed to cooperate in having the bill passed into law by the end of the month – considerably faster than the time such bills usually take. I’ll take this moment to remind readers that laws tightening gun ownership after the Christchurch Mosque shootings was not as a result of a dictatorial government. That government was in fact a minority coalition and could not pass legislation as it saw fit. That particular legislation passed through parliament only with the support of opposition parties. It was passed into law with every member of Parliament, except one, supporting the bill.
Personally, I think this single terrorist act is insufficient reason to hasten the passage of the bill. Any haste increases the chance that something might miss scrutiny – either to restrict our freedoms or to render aspects of the legislation ineffective under the law. I would not like to see this legislation to do either. Time will tell if my unease is justified.
Finally I’ll comment on the oh so many claims that confiscating guns does not make us any safer and this single terrorist act is proof of that. Gun confiscation is a myth and I wish the American gun lobby would give up on spreading this misinformation. Prior to the tightening of the gun laws there were an estimated 1.5 million guns in legal ownership. The 34,000 guns handed in as a result of the law change is but a drop in the bucket, but it does mean that access to military style weapons is more difficult for everyone including criminal elements.
No piece of legislation can remove every danger. But it can reduce harm. It reduces the opportunity for those who wish to do harm to obtain the resources needed to carry it out. No one in Aotearoa New Zealand is permitted to carry weapons of any type in public places. Even the police are not routinely armed. No, it doesn’t mean that nobody will ever carry a weapon, but knowing the sanctions the courts can impose on anyone convicted of carrying weapons in public means that most will think twice before arming themselves.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the number of antisocial, violent elements in our midst would not be significantly different in either the US or NZ, yet if the argument that more guns makes for a safer environment, then this nation should be a very dangerous place indead. It is not. The statistics bear this out. Everything from police shootings (per 10 million, NZ: 2.10, US: 28.54), to murders (per 100,000, NZ: 0.99, US: 5.35). Crime rates in the two countries is, unfortunately, similar (per 100,000, NZ: 42.2, US: 47.7), so it would appear that lack of opportunity presented by restrictions of carrying weapons does indeed reduce physical harm.
This is apparent when we observe that burglary rates in NZ are twice those in the US, yet violence or deaths occurring during burglaries are almost unknown. Most are self inflicted by the burglar in their haste to escape apprehension.
No nation has a perfect set of laws covering every possible situation. Nor will any nation ever achieve such a goal. In the full knowledge that law makers and governments are just as fallible thas everyone else, our greatest protection is not a formal document in the form of a constitution (Aotearoa New Zealand doesn’t have one anyway) but the observance of the rule of law.