The Sunday Magazine

New Zealand has been 'naive' about right-wing extremism, says researcher

New Zealand has a long history of right-wing extremist groups that has been too-often overlooked. Paul Spoonley has been studying right-wing extremism in his country since the 1980s. He is pro vice-chancellor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University in Auckland.
Members of the public react in front of the Masjd Al Noor Mosque as they fear for their relatives on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Decades ago, New Zealand authorities assured Paul Spoonley that white supremacist and right-wing extremist groups were not present in the country, despite his research to the contrary.

Spoonley is the author of many books, including Politics of Nostalgia: Racism and the Extreme Right in New Zealand. He currently serves as pro vice-chancellor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University in Auckland.

He spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about the Christchurch attack and the history of right-wing extremism in New Zealand. Here is part of their conversation. 

Michael Enright: You've written that the massacre must end New Zealand's 'collective innocence.' What do you mean by that?

Paul Spoonley: Well I think that we, being New Zealanders, thought we were exempt from these sorts of politics and the events have just shown that we are not. What we're dealing with is an international phenomenon, driven very much by what's available on the internet, that really means that no part of the world is now exempt or excluded from these sorts of extremist politics. 

ME: You also said, though, that there is a naivety among New Zealanders, including the media, about the need to be tolerant towards the intolerant. That is a fascinating statement. 

PS: We had the "joy" of having two Canadians arrive in New Zealand last year, Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, and they came here to tell us about the threat of Muslims and Islam. The mayor in Auckland, Phil Goff, decided to de-platform them ... We had this big debate about free speech, and what I thought was naive was the view, held by many, that no matter how offensive the speech, it was more important that it should be free, than that we should react to it, and condemn it, and sometimes ban it. We were naive in saying, 'Yes, they could say what they liked,' in the interest of free speech.

ME: How did you first begin studying right-wing extremism in New Zealand? 

PS: Well it's rather a sad tale. I was wanting to develop a thesis topic while I was at the University of Bristol, and two incidents occurred. One was a few streets away: a young Pakistani man was held on the ground, and a swastika was carved in his stomach with a razor blade. And then an Indian woman answered her front door and petrol was poured over her and she was set alight. 

I was the son of a British migrant, and I'd been told about these liberal values of Britain and I was thinking, 'Wow, these are not liberal. This is a society which has got an underbelly which is deeply, deeply concerning.' So I studied the National Front and the [British] National Party.

I contacted people in New Zealand and said, 'Look, do you know that these people exist in New Zealand?' and they said, 'No, no, no, doesn't exist.' And I came back and I talked to the authorities and they said exactly the same, that we have no record that these people act in New Zealand. So I then did my research, and through the 1980s, looked at 70 different groups in New Zealand. So, yes they were here and yes they were an issue. Now, of course, the authorities do take more notice.

ME: Was it tremendously difficult for you to find and identify the 70 groups?

PS: No. They were very keen to proselytize, and so even though my values were completely the opposite of theirs, I think that somebody was interested in ... what they were doing was sufficient for them to open their front door and invite me in. I didn't always feel very comfortable doing that, and I received death threats, and for many years my address was not publicly available because of that. So it was very challenging for me as a person and as a researcher to do that. But I saw as it as important.

Flowers are placed on the front steps of the Wellington Masjid mosque in Kilbirnie in Wellington on March 15, 2019, after a shooting incident at two mosques in Christchurch. (MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

ME: How vigilant have New Zealand law enforcement officials been about monitoring right-wing extremists in recent years?

PS: Well, I think this whole case really raises that question. I am aware that they are monitoring those groups. But the question is: what are the resources available to them to do that? And I'm very conscious that the online material is now very extensive, both international and local, and the ability to monitor that —having content managers or content scrutiny, even using algorithms — is a very big challenge. And then, of course, identifying those people who are expressing hateful views but then might prove to be a risk to society in some way is a big challenge for all our authorities around the world. And I suspect the New Zealand authorities simply haven't had enough resources and haven't paid enough attention to right-wing extremism in New Zealand. 

ME: But the shooter in this case broadcast his views. He foretold exactly what he was going to do in the hours prior to the attack. He must've been on somebody's watch list. No?

PS: No. The commissioner of police admitted that he was not on the New Zealand watch list and ... that having talked to his counterpart in Australia, he was not on an Australian watch list either. So I would ask the same question that you've just asked. I wasn't aware of this guy, but when I looked at the online activities that he's indulged in ... there was surely a warning. 

ME: Would it be too outrageous to suggest that they weren't detected because he was white and Christian? 

PS: Yes, it would be. I think the authorities in New Zealand are aware that the extreme right do present a threat. But we tend to be naive in another way ... We tend to think that extreme right-wing politics is something that you would find with the English Defence League in the U.K. or with some of the groups you find in the Netherlands or Germany or France. It's not something that we have in New Zealand. I found it very frustrating to say, 'Well, actually we do have.' There's always the potential for these people to act out their violence. Often they don't, but there's always that potential.

ME: Obviously it's an international phenomenon. Every country, as you've pointed out, is vulnerable. How can governments deal with the right-wing extremists if many of them don't believe they exist?

PS: The difficulty is that you in Canada or in the U.S.A. might react locally to people who are expressing hate speech and who are acting violently locally. But we've got to find some way of dealing with it internationally because it's not inevitably a domestic problem for one particular government. It needs international action. 

Paul Spoonley's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.