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New Zealand: David Confronts Two Goliaths

After the election of Donald Trump, New Zealand became the go-to option for terrified Americans fantasizing about emigration. Three years later, New Zealand has burnished its reputation as a credible refuge by successfully confronting two epidemics that continue to plague the United States—one political, the other medical.

New Zealand’s most recent success has been its handling of the coronavirus. After seven weeks of an extraordinarily stringent lockdown—closed borders, suspended in-country travel, no takeout—the government has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at 1,500, with only 21 deaths. That’s 4.3 deaths per million, compared to 246 per million in the United States. Thanks to rigorous testing and an updated contact tracing system, New Zealand has brought its active caseload to below 100 (as of this writing).

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced further steps to open the economy so that Kiwis can once again visit restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms. The borders remain effectively closed, and Ardern promises to reimpose strict controls if cases spike. But few other democratic countries can claim this kind of success with so few casualties.

New Zealand has a couple of advantages over other countries. It’s a relatively small, isolated island nation with a very low population density. It has a strong social welfare system that even its conservatives support.

Perhaps most importantly, the government and the people were tested a year ago by a different kind of outbreak. New Zealand’s effective handling of the coronavirus was prefigured by its dramatic response to a right-wing murder spree in the country’s second-largest city.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist originally from New South Wales in Australia opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The shooter advertised his far-right credentials by titling his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which linked him to other anti-immigration extremists, including shooters in El Paso in 2019 and Pittsburgh in 2018, who believe that foreigners and immigrants are plotting to “replace” predominantly white majorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This ideology is integral to the epidemic of far-right violence that has gathered force worldwide over the last decade.

The Christchurch attacks were a surprise to many inside and outside of New Zealand. “This is an incredibly tolerant, multicultural country,” notes Paul Spoonley of Massey University in Auckland. “In an international value study, the proportion of New Zealanders who see immigrants as contributing positively to the country is probably two to four times higher that in countries in mainland Europe. To be anti-immigrant or against a particular religion is politically damaging.”

New Zealand’s current reputation for tolerance belies its history of discrimination against immigrants and the indigenous Maori. The country has also been home to a small but globally connected far-right community, which was implicated in several murders and more than 100 incidents of racist violence between 2005 and 2013.

Prior to 2019, the Muslim community repeatedly complained that the New Zealand authorities weren’t properly addressing Islamophobic threats. “It was taken quite lightly because we always believed that New Zealand was the safest place on earth, that things like that happen somewhere else,” observes Ikhlaq Kashkari, the president of the Muslim Association of New Zealand. “We were living with a false sense of security, even though we were getting more news every day from around the world about the promotion of Islamophobia.”

Christchurch itself was not immune to these trends. “When Christchurch emerged as having a problem, the defenses went up and local representatives said, ‘We’re not a racist city,’” says Rawiri Taonui, New Zealand’s first professor of indigenous studies. “There have been more racist incidents in Christchurch than pretty much anywhere in the country.”

Despite rising Islamophobia and a history of far-right organizing, the New Zealand authorities were not primed to look for a white man like the Christchurch shooter. “After 9/11, a number of people here suddenly labeled all the Muslim people of New Zealand who were living peacefully in the country as terrorists,” points out Meng Foon, New Zealand’s commissioner of race relations. “The New Zealand secret service targeted them more and, unfortunately, missed the shooter last year in Christchurch. They dropped the ball in terms of monitoring white supremacists.”

Such failures were on par with the performance of other countries. But New Zealand’s response after March 15 was something altogether different. Squarely addressing its failures, the Ardern government immediately and unequivocally responded to the Christchurch killings with an unusual combination of empathy for the victims and zero tolerance for the culture that nurtured the perpetrator’s hatred, all the while recognizing the need for cross-border coordination. As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of policy approach that paid off a year later when the coronavirus hit.

After March 15, Prime Minister Ardern demonstrated what leadership looks like. Following the example of the mayor of Christchurch, Ardern swiftly called the massacre “terrorism.” She donned a hijab and reached out to the Muslim community, refused to speak the name of the perpetrator, and introduced sweeping gun-control measures. She even went to the island of Fiji to console family members of those killed on March 15.

Ardern enjoyed broad support for these moves. Unlike in the United States, where repeated mass shootings have not led to substantial gun control, New Zealand outlawed automatic weapons “with widespread public support and universal parliamentary support (119 out of 120 MPs voted in favor),” Paul Spoonley notes. “There was some grumbling among those who go hunting that the ban had gone too far or was actioned too rapidly. Also, illegal weapons are not subject to registration and restrictions on sales. But we’re light years away from the United States.”

The government moved more forcefully to preempt right-wing violence, launching dozens of investigations into extremist groups and individuals, jailing a neo-Nazi who shared a video of the Christchurch killings, and arresting a Defense Force soldier with links to the far right. It has also pushed forward with a new effort to amend existing laws to outlaw hate speech. “If all the New Zealand government does is extend the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act, it will safely avoid curtailing free speech,” concludes Martin Cocker of Netsafe. Although such prohibitions against hate speech set New Zealand apart from countries like the United States, the state has to be careful not to simply ban unpopular opinions. “It’s very difficult to combat the kind of things we’re seeing online without creating measures that could very easily impinge on free speech,” Cocker notes.

Perhaps Ardern’s most ambitious project has been the Christchurch Call, “a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Only two months after the shootings, New Zealand joined France in pushing for change at the international level. “They knew that they were unlikely to drive global change on social media as a country of 5 million people far away from the main political centers in the US and Europe,” observes Matthew Feldman of the Centre for the Analysis of the Right Wing. “They put white nationalism very squarely on the UN General Assembly agenda.”

The big players—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—all signed on to the Call, committing to develop algorithms and AI tools to quickly identify and remove hateful content from their platforms. Any Kiwi who views extremist content online is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups. The Call also inspired Australia to pass a law that criminalizes social media companies that don’t expeditiously remove “abhorrent violent material.” That’s all to the good, but it hasn’t yet detoxified the Internet. The Call, which is nonbinding, has been limited in its impact given the “lack of alignment among countries and a lack of consistent pressure on multinationals,” Martin Cocker adds. “If the Christchurch Call moved to the point of achieving consistency among countries in terms of what they demand from industry, it could continue to have some influence.”

When the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty in late March, New Zealand was saved from the spectacle of a very public trial. “His guilty plea will likely reduce the priority of efforts to curb the far right,” Matt Nipert of The New Zealand Herald says. “My concern is that New Zealand still views him as a lone wolf, as one deranged individual, that it’s not our problem, that an Australian came here to do it. That’s true, but the problem is global. These groups operate across borders and see themselves as a brotherhood, not as citizens of a country. Someone did an analysis of who logs on to 8chan. You can’t see their identities, but you can see where they log on from, and New Zealand was very highly ranked.”

New Zealand was blindsided by the Christchurch killings last year and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, even though there was indeed some advance warning in both instances. Nevertheless, the Ardern government moved quickly to break the chain of infection through well-calculated, radical interventions. It showed zero tolerance by jailing right-wing extremists after March 15 and, during the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, demoting the health minister who blithely visited a beach. The government knows the battle, in both cases, is not over. It is continuing to monitor the coronavirus and right-wing extremism, because it understands that epidemics can recur.

Although the Covid-19 response has been more top-down, both efforts received overwhelming domestic support. Ardern’s approval rating rose to 51 percent a month after the Christchurch killings and has soared to 65 percent during the coronavirus crisis.

In both cases, too, New Zealand has recognized that it can’t fight these problems alone. It issued the Christchurch Call to spur international action against the spread of far-right ideology, and it has been cooperating regionally and internationally to address the coronavirus.

According to Meng Foon, the New Zealand government also learned from its initial mistake of ignoring the threat of white extremism. It was determined to make sure that its response to the coronavirus was fully inclusive. As a result, the virus has not had the kind of disproportionate impact on people of color so evident in the United States.

“I don’t think any person of color has died of Covid-19,” he notes. “Only about 4 percent of the total of those who contracted Covid-19 are Maori and Pacific Islander.”

For Ikhlaq Kashkari, the key commonality has been the quality of the social response. He chokes up when he remembers how many people came out to support mosques in the days after the Christchurch shootings. “People have gone out of their way to help each other as they did on March 15,” he says. “Our slogan here is: Stay home, stay safe, and be kind. Those three things explain it all.”

The Nation, May 25, 2020

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