Government to speed up terrorism law changes following Auckland attack

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Nobody shopping at Lynnmall Countdown on Friday afternoon could have known what was to come. But the Government and police knew the man behind the attack was a threat.

So much so, in late August they had discussed how to speed up changes to our terrorism laws, to reduce the risk he posed.

“Within 48 hours of these discussions, the Minister of Justice contacted the chair of the select committee with the intention of speeding that law change up,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a press conference on Saturday afternoon.

“That was yesterday, the same day the attack happened.”

In July the man was sentenced to 12 months’ supervision after being convicted of possessing Islamic State propaganda.

The Crown wanted to try him as a terrorist, but that was shut down by the High Court: there is currently no offence for planning or preparing a terrorist attack.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism specialist Dr John Battersby says it shows our laws are outdated.

“Our current Terrorism and Suppression Act is not fit for purpose, and has not been for some time,” he told Newshub.

While Dr Battersby says it’s unclear if the attacker could have been stopped if the law were amended sooner, especially as a lone actor, change is still needed.

“It clearly is inadequate in a circumstance where the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have sufficient information to believe somebody is doing that,” he told Newshub.

While he described the absence of the offence as an Achilles’ heel before the trial, Justice Young had ruled “it is not open to a court to create an offence, whether in the guise of statutory construction or otherwise. The issue is for Parliament”.

And it’s an issue Parliament was well aware of.

The Counter Terror Legislation Bill currently before the house plans to plug that hole in our terror laws, making planning or preparing an attack an offence.

It was spurred on by the Royal Commission into the March 15 Christchurch attacks, and had passed its first reading in May.

Now the Prime Minister is speeding up the wheels of justice.

“As soon as Parliament resumes we will complete that work. That means working to pass the law as soon as possible, and no later than by the end of this month,” she says.

One opposition party is onboard.

“I texted the Prime Minister last night and said ‘look, if you want to get it through in urgency, we’ll be happy to support it.’ Obviously she can do that anyway, she has the numbers to do it, but we’re very happy to help support that,” says National leader Judith Collins.

But ACT says hasty changes won’t fix bad laws.

“To rush them now that he’s gone and the Police Commissioner says there’s no other cases at his level is just political theatrics instead of good lawmaking,” says leader David Seymour.

He’s concerned public submissions to the law change won’t be heard.

“People have had a say. MPs haven’t considered what they’ve said yet. To rush this legislation through now is ignoring that public submission process.”

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis says the sentencing judge, Justice Fitzgerald, already had the power to keep the man in jail under existing Films, Videos, and Publications Classification laws, but chose to sentence him to supervision in the hope he could be rehabilitated.

“It was a judgement call that the judge made, and unfortunately it’s led to this conclusion. But we only can see that this sort of thing would happen in hindsight,” he explains.

Prof Geddis is also concerned over the law’s rushing.

“Those kinds of difficulties and complexities may be brushed over in an effort to be seen to be doing something. That’s never a good way to make law,” he says.

Even the Prime Minister isn’t sure the law change would have kept the attacker behind bars instead of in the community. Especially as it wouldn’t have applied retrospectively.

“It would be speculative to say whether or not this law would’ve made that difference, but nonetheless we were pursuing it,” she says.

Because while the law may not have prevented what happened on Friday, it hopes to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.

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