Election 2023: Intelligence agencies warn 'violent rhetoric' towards politicians will 'almost certainly increase' leading up to election

Intelligence agencies have warned "violent rhetoric" targeting politicians and political candidates will "almost certainly increase" leading up to this year's election.

New Zealand is also "unlikely immune" to trends of conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric resulting in violence "emanating from, or targeting" elected officials, the agencies say.

In October, the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) wrote a threat insight report looking at violent extremist sentiment targeting elected officials as well as that held by people in elected positions across Western democracies. 

CTAG includes analysts from the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and other groups like police, and the National Assessments Bureau (NAB). The report was issued after last year's local elections and ahead of 2023's general election. 

A summary of the report provided to Newshub under the Official Information Act (OIA) said CTAG isn't aware of specific conspiracy theories or extremist rhetoric leading to real-world ideologically motivated violence emanating from or targeting elected officials in New Zealand. 

"However, New Zealand is unlikely immune to such trends," the report said.

"Internationally, such views have exposed the public to potentially dangerous disinformation, contributed to the mainstreaming of extreme beliefs and provided gateways to violent extremism."

It said individuals and groups in New Zealand with extreme views "will almost certainly continue to espouse violent rhetoric targeting elected officials or those seeking election".

"This rhetoric will almost certainly increase in the lead up to, and during, New Zealand's General Election in 2023".

The potential for threats towards the safety of MPs and political candidates at the general election is also mentioned in a briefing given to Stuart Nash when he was appointed Police Minister earlier this year. 

The document from police, released on Friday, said "recent environmental stressors, including COVID-19, have impacted New Zealand and New Zealanders in significant ways". 

"These are considered likely to increase the potential for disruption and threats to the General Election and, in particular, to MPs, political candidates and those proximate to them."

Police said an Election 2023 Readiness work programme will be established.

"This rhetoric will almost certainly increase in the lead up to, and during, New Zealand's General Election in 2023".
"This rhetoric will almost certainly increase in the lead up to, and during, New Zealand's General Election in 2023". Photo credit: Newshub.

Electing extremists

People holding "fringe, radical or extreme views serving in local or national government is not a new phenomenon", the October CTAG report said. 

It said people are "afforded equal opportunity in Western democratic societies to represent their communities even when disagreements on views or ideologies exist".

The report said these views "are not directly of security concern", but "international experience demonstrates the pathway such views occasionally provide towards extreme violence can potentially adversely affect the violent extremism environment in a Western democracy".

"Individuals and groups internationally and domestically, who believe democratic laws lack legitimacy, have incited, encouraged or used violence in an attempt to achieve social change," the group said.

"Some of these individuals and groups have sought, or are seeking, election, with some successfully elected to office offshore. Other individuals and groups have targeted elected officials."

The group said that while violent extremist groups and individuals have obtained political roles overseas, "their tenure has often been limited".

International trends and the nature of New Zealand's elections mean it's more likely violent extremists would be elected to local political roles than into national-level political roles or into Parliament, the group said. 

Some violent extremists who seek election "ultimately aim to undermine democracy, and can potentially legitimise broader extremist ideologies in society," the report said. 

Successfully elected violent extremists "likely have more influence and accessible platforms to achieve their goals" compared with those not elected.

"It is more difficult to challenge or offset ideas of elected officials due to the need to maintain societal free speech and democratic norms."

"Use of conspiracy theories and factualIy inaccurate narratives by elected officials, or those seeking election, can also harm democracy by reducing trust and promoting cynicism in politics and democratic institutions, threatening public deliberation and weakening democratic accountability."

Violent rhetoric and attacks targeting elected officials can also "detrimentally affect democracy" by leading to a reduced desire of people to stand for election and increased resignations. 

"This provides opportunities for conspiratorial, inexperienced and anti-democracy activists to run, and succeed, in relatively uncontested elections." 

Some violent extremists who seek election "ultimately aim to undermine democracy".
Some violent extremists who seek election "ultimately aim to undermine democracy". Photo credit: Newshub.

Last year, during the local elections, anti-misinformation group FACT Aotearoa said it had identified 170 candidates standing for election who held extreme or conspiratorial views. 

There was concern that due to the traditionally low voter turnout at local elections as well as a lack of engagement by the public in local politics, some could be elected. 

"Extreme individuals will get onto to local body government and local body councils, simply because we have such low and apathetic voter turnout in those spaces," Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies director Dr William Hoverd told RNZ.

"People won't even know who they're voting for or why - they'll just get on, and then if that candidate is able to engender particular support as well then it's going to make them even more powerful."

Stuff reported on how anti-COVID-19 vaccination group Voices for Freedom tried to get spokespeople elected to roles. In the end, only a small number were elected to councils.  

At the last general election in 2020, there were attempts by political parties that opposed COVID-19 regulations to get spots in Parliament. Advance NZ joined with conspiracist theorist Billy Te Kahika's New Zealand Public Party to contest the election, but only got 1 percent of the vote.

Common law movement 

A summary of another report produced by CTAG - this time in April last year - focused on the common law movement, which it said "believes that current governments are illegitimate and the only true form of government is one based around a pseudo-legal 'common law'".

"Consistent with protests in Canada and Australia, Common Law and other pseudo-legal rhetoric featured prominently among protestors during the 'Freedom Convoy 2022' occupation in Wellington during February and March 2022." 

The report said this ideology is not explicitly violent but some adherents have used threatening rhetoric "in connection to the desire to arrest and try public officials", particularly those related to New Zealand's COVID-19 response. 

Common law-inspired violent extremists "form a small minority" within the overall movement in New Zealand, CTAG said, but there are likely some "with the intent and capability to conduct an act of violent extremism". 

This would "almost certainly target public figures and representatives of the state or media, possibly during a public event", like a 'citizen's arrest', rather than targeted towards the general public.

"Such attacks have a realistic possibility of being an opportunistic reaction to immediate events. We cannot dismiss the possibility that any attack could manifest with little or intelligence forewarning."

There was an occupation at Parliament last February and March.
There was an occupation at Parliament last February and March. Photo credit: Getty Images.

CTAG said it's aware of a number of media reports of incidents in New Zealand where violence has either occurred or been threatened involving common law-motivated individuals.

These include an individual arrested for threatening to kill former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who said they "live under common law" and refused to recognise the court's jurisdiction, CTAG said.

It said that during the protest at Parliament last year, one individual who appeared to adhere to common law ideologies tried to gain access to Parliament and was "attempting to serve a pseudo-legal arrest document on Health Minister Andrew Little". 

Following the occupation, Newshub reported CTAG thought it was "likely" a small minority of individuals in New Zealand "have or will develop the intent to carry out an act of extremist violence" in either reprisal to the protest clearance or to "compensate for a perceived lack of 'success'".  

The agencies said at the time that the most likely scenario of an act of violence would be from a lone actor or small group "inspired by threatening rhetoric".

Newshub also revealed earlier this year the number of threats towards politicians involving police has jumped significantly over the past year, with a large number recorded during the Parliament protest.