It was our 9 - 11; how Christchurch will change New Zealand
By Richard Harman (author)
Cabinet looks likely to spend almost all of its meeting today talking about Christchurch.
This will be the only the beginning of how the events of Friday look likely to dominate politics for weeks; possibly months; possibly even years, to come.
This was New Zealand’s 9/11.
The scale of what happened on Friday is the same as that applying to the Twin Towers in September 2001
In both cases, .001 per cent of the population (of the US and New Zealand) were killed.
That is why what happened is likely to have such a profound effect.
It may be the moment when New Zealand moves from being a bi-cultural to a truly multi-cultural society.
Certainly, as far as ethnic relations are concerned, it can no longer be business as usual.
The impact is likely to spill over into firearms control, surveillance legislation, internet regulation, possibly media regulation and how the various Government agencies respond to hate crimes.
For the immediate future, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has so far managed to project the right combination of steely resolve and empathy.
Maybe for the first time in her Prime Ministership, she has looked like a Prime Minister, someone above politics; rather than a political leader.
That may prove to be a vitally important political transition.
This will be underlined this morning when she opens up the National Book of Condolence in the Grand Hall at Parliament with the Governor General.
The first and most immediate issue will be firearms control.
"We cannot be deterred from the work that we need to do on our gun laws in New Zealand," she said at a special press conference yesterday afternoon..
“They need to change regardless of what activity may or may not have happened with gun retailers.
“They will change.”
There are two issues; the banning of semi-automatic weapons altogether and the registration of guns themselves, rather than just gun owners, as happens at present.
The failure to register weapons means once someone is a registered gun owner they may build up an arsenal unhindered.
"New Zealand is almost alone with the United States in not registering 96 per cent of its firearms — and those are its most common firearms, the ones most used in crimes," the former “Fair Go” presenter and longtime gun control advocate, Associate Professor Philip Alpers of Sydney University. said over the weekend.
A Select Committee Inquiry into the illegal possession of firearms in New Zealand in 2017 made some recommendations which would have tightened some controls but did not propose compulsory registration of all firearms or a ban on semi-automatics.
Ardern said she would be seeking National support for a ban and already National’s Shadow leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, has said he supports her.
“I find it bizarre people can say they need automatic rifles for sports hunting,” he told RNZ’s “Morning Report.”
“I struggle to see how you need to have something that discharges seven bullets in quick succession."
Banning semi-automatics and buying back the existing ones, as Australia did when it bought back 660,000 semi-automatics after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. That cost $500 million which was financed by an increase in the MediCare levy.
According to the NZ Police in 2017, there were 13,000 semi-automatics in New Zealand which would have ranged in purchase price from $500 to over $2000. That would mean any buyback programme could cost as much as $250 million.
Nevertheless, firearms are a relatively straightforward and quick fix; a more complicated matter is the performance of the various security agencies.
Should they have known about the shooter who had an online presence before the shooting?
“There is no question that we need to have a comprehensive response to the range of issues and questions that this has raised,” Ardern said yesterday.
“I will be having those discussions with Cabinet .”
But there are also questions about whether the security services have become obsessed with Islamic extremists and closed their eyes to other forms of extremism.
Intelligence priorities are set by Cabinet’s National Intelligence Committee and were last revised last March.
“Extremism is, of course, an issue that all the agencies are focused on and aware of,” she said.
“As I have said for many months now because in particular of the global surge that we've seen in those activities that they have been very active in that space.
“ As I say we need to make sure that we are looking more broadly at the work of our agencies not just our intelligence services police, and our borders to ensure that we've taken a comprehensive approach and do everything we can to prevent any kind of activity or action like this.”
The role of social media is also likely to come under scrutiny.
Ardern said she had received a message of condolences from Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook with whom she had dinner while at the UN last year.
But Facebook will face questions, and not just from New Zealand, about why it was able to live stream, the video from the killer’s GoPro camera showing the massacre in progress.
Furthermore, the shooter was able to post items on Facebook showing his firearms collections with anti-Muslim slogans on the images.
This also raises the question of whether New Zealand’s surveillance laws are too tight and prohibit intelligence agencies from scrutinising social media traffic without a warrant.
To get an interception warrant, an agency would need to show a cause; usually, some criminal behaviour on the part of the person being intercepted.
But the shooter had led a blameless life as far as police in Australia and New Zealand were concerned with no record of him offending at all.
In its briefing to the incoming Minister in 2017, the GCSB said: “New Zealand does not undertake any “mass surveillance” of New Zealanders, such as the active monitoring of emails, phone calls and internet use of the populations.
“We do not have the legal authority, capability or interest to undertake such activity.”
The challenge for Governments is that the internet now offers an anonymous space for people like the shooter to be recruited by extremist organisations and then become radicalised and possibly even trained in various firearms and explosive techniques with very little opportunity for any state to observe and intervene in what is going on.
The shooter’s story was typical.
He was part of a movement that exists in some of the darker recesses of the web called "Eco-Fascists” who believe that Nazi Germany was the environmentally purest country in history.
The “New Statesman America” has described eco-facistsm as ” nature-obsessed, anti-Semitic, white supremacists who argue that racial purity is the only way to save the planet.”
Ardern said there were questions to be answered by the internet platforms.
“This is an issue that goes well beyond New Zealand, but it doesn't mean we can't play an active role in seeing it resolved. “
But white nationalist extremism is also on the rise in New Zealand in full daylight.
A number of groups banded together late last year under the umbrella of an organisation called “Right Minds” to oppose the United Nations Compact on Migration.
At rallies in Auckland Christchurch, speakers made it clear that their opposition to the Compact was because it would allow what they (incorrectly) claimed would be unfettered Muslim migration.
The National Party also opposed the Compact but undoubtedly reacting to the massacre removed a petition they were running to oppose it from their website on Friday.
This raises questions about hate speech and hate crimes.
In 2017 Poice Commissioner Mike Bush said the police were investigating whether a new category of offence to cover hate crimes should be created.
Justice Minister Amy Adams said though the commissioner had not raised the issue with her, she did not believe it was warranted.
"My take on it is we have a very low level of that sort of behaviour in New Zealand," she said.
But the problem is that because hate crime is not an offence, no statistics are kept, and thus there is no measure of how extensive hate crimes might be.
Clearly, Adams’ argument is no longer valid.
But it is just one of many areas where a certain innocence that was woven through New Zealand public life ended last Friday.