March 15 has been termed by many the “end of our innocence”. Prior to the terror attack on two Christchurch mosques that killed 51 Muslims at worship, mainstream New Zealand had assumed it was free of the far-right sentiments plaguing other Western countries.
A handful of reporters and academics wrote about the threat posed by the far-right prior to March 15, but by and large it went unnoticed. Journalist Patrick Gower, who now regularly covers right-wing extremism, said he “was ashamed and embarrassed” because he had “not done one story on white supremacy”.
Although few would now deny that there are far-right extremists in New Zealand, questions remain around how many there are and whether we have truly reckoned with the root causes of white supremacy.
Expert says far-right remains active
According to Radio New Zealand, 35 people have been charged in relation to sharing the alleged Christchurch gunman’s livestreamed video. At least one, notorious neo-Nazi Phil Arps, is in prison for the crime.
But other white supremacist groups are still active in New Zealand. In August, Newsroom reported on the existence of Action Zealandia, a new far-right group attempting to recruit members on 4chan. The group now claims to have chapters in Auckland and Nelson.
Paul Spoonley, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, is an expert on New Zealand’s far-right. He said some groups and individuals have receded from the limelight since March 15, but others are still active.
“Others have celebrated what happened and this is reflected in the response of some like Philip Arps,” Spoonley said.
“New groups have emerged. And some long standing activists such as [former National Front member] Kerry Bolton are ever more active, trying to offer an interpretation. In his case, he thinks this has been an opportunity for activists to be criminalised.”
Grappling with the far-right
The presence of the far-right in New Zealand poses a number of unique challenges for political leaders, and for New Zealanders in general.
Spoonley says there is “a lot to be done, especially as Muslim leaders had warned that there was ongoing hate speech and threats for some time. The test for me is the political and policy response to hate speech from the far right.”
What are you supposed to do, Spoonley asks, if your co-worker or family member starts espousing far-right views? Nothing they say is against the law, but how can you gauge when someone is about to move from just being a believer to being someone who takes illegal or even violent action?
“What happens in terms of providing options for family members and workmates of those close to far right activists? If extreme views occur in the workplace or a public situation, who is responsible for responding? And what is an appropriate response?” he asked.
“What about white supremacists in institutions like our prisons? And one of the most important issues, what should be done about hate speech in online forums and platforms?”
Online radicalisation still a threat
Some New Zealand internet service providers have taken it upon themselves to regulate the internet in the absence of Government action. 2degrees and Spark have pledged to block access to the 8chan message board if it resurfaces, after it was used to spread propaganda by the alleged Christchurch and El Paso shooters.
The Government acted quickly to liaise with social media companies and international partners in the aftermath of March 15. The result, the Christchurch Call, will work to purge the internet of violent extremist content.
But what about content that isn’t explicitly violent? Most extremists don’t just wake up one morning suddenly convinced that the Holocaust didn’t happen – it takes a steady diet of far-right memes, YouTube videos and other content to radicalise them over time.
Spoonley said New Zealand “absolutely” needs to do more to understand how and why radicalisation happens here. “We still do not understand why some are radicalised, especially in relation to what happens online,” he said.
The Government has yet to genuinely tackle this issue, he believes. Moreover, the rest of New Zealand is also reluctant to more seriously reckon with the presence of the far-right here.
“15 March was something of a wake-up call for New Zealand,” he said. “I am not sure that many understood that we had an extreme right – and that there were activists and groups who were so extreme in their views and actions.”
Now people know that “we are part of the global activities of white supremacists and extreme nationalists”. Already, however, some are forgetting.
“I already sense that this realisation has begun to recede in terms of the public conscience.”