Police call for stronger counter-terrorism laws

11:53 am on 28 August 2020

Police want greater legislative powers for dealing with terrorism, following laws in place in the United Kingdom.

Police taping off the street out Christchurch mosque

Police on the scene after the Christchurch mosque attacks. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Senior police met with the head of the UK's Home Office in December last year along with government ministers, and discussed counter terrorism policing.

RNZ has been told New Zealand's police would like to adopt some of their counter-terrorism laws.

Britain's counter-terrorism strategy is called CONTEST, and seeks to prevent, pursue, protect and prepare for terrorist activities.

Sir Philip Rutnam, the former head of the UK Home Office which overseas counter-terrorism operations, met with New Zealand officials in December.

Police Minister Stuart Nash and Justice Minister Andrew Little both had meetings with Sir Philip, as did senior members of the police.

It was in the meeting with Nash that the police outlined one of the big differences in New Zealand's counter terrorism capabilities.

"New Zealand Police do not currently have the same legislative tools as the UK to disrupt and prevent terrorism."

And the key differences?

"New Zealand does not [have the] power to arrest and hold temporarily, in cases where there are concerns about terrorism, [or] offences for general terrorism planning or preparation, making statements in support of a terrorist or terrorist organisation, travel for terrorist purposes, and weapons training for terrorism purposes."

RNZ has been told police would like greater power to detain people if suspected of terrorist activity, and a wider range of offences to choose from.

There is no talk of adopting the UK CONTEST strategy, but cherry picking certain elements that might work for New Zealand.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told Morning Report it is a decision for government so police will not make too much further comment.

"We are ready to receive whatever might come out of the Royal Commission's [of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques] report and we'll continue to advise government on what we think could enhance safety in this country."

He said police scan what is being done in other countries but there are always limitations with events often coming out of the blue.

"That's why I come back to the importance of promoting the right kind of unified dialogue across communities in New Zealand because in the end it's that resilience that prevents this kind of hateful outlook to be able to grow."

John Ip, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland specialising in counter terrorism, said it is inevitable that new laws will come in at the conclusion of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch attack.

But he said that does not mean new laws could have prevented what happened in Christchurch.

"If the police had this power that they currently have in the UK, if we'd had that prior to Christchurch, would that have changed things?

"I don't think it's going to work like that. I think it's just going to be a case of Christchurch has permanently altered elite perception of risk."

So if the laws might not have made a difference, are greater counter terrorism capabilities needed?

"There's no way that one can actually definitively answer that question, certainly not from the outside," Ip said.

"You'd have to know what's the sort of threat profile that New Zealand is currently facing? What's the sort of chatter that the intelligence and security agencies are picking up in relation to terrorist threats of various kinds?"

Police and other agencies keep that information secret.

Professor Al Gillespie of the University of Waikato said New Zealand's current laws are fairly strong, and he is not convinced they need beefing up.

But he said if counter terrorism laws are changed, the oversights of the laws are extremely important.

"Especially in this climate, with what happened with [Brenton] Tarrant.

"We have to be so determined to make sure it never happens again, but on the other hand you've got to always make sure that the authorities don't take more powers than are necessary, and getting that balance is difficult at the best of times."

Stuart Nash said he has been in discussions around the Terrorism Suppression Act framework, but it falls under the scope of Justice Minister Andrew Little.

That said, Nash said he is eagerly awaiting the findings of the Royal Commission, and what the next steps should be in counter terrorism work.

He said he is open to any proposals from police that will make it easier to keep people safe from the risk of terror attacks.

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