Dr Liz Gordon – Border games


When the National Government appointed Peter Gluckman as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, it could not have known that the position would be for life.  That Gluckman would become the Putin of Science Advice, popping up here, there and everywhere to give his views as if he were still, and forever, Chief Science Advisor.

And Helen Clark still Prime Minister. And Rob Fyfe still head of an airline.  Of course, what I am referring to is the document issued under the names of all three via the think tank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, which is based at the University of Auckland.  Reading online it is clear to see that the think tank is Peter Gluckman, transported from his previous role, and indeed his previous, previous role, into a new research centre (read: cost centre for raising research funds).

Peter Gluckman is the epitome of an academic patriarch. Wherever one spots him, he has a little group of people around him, listening to him.  He is NOT a conversationalist, but an expounder of knowledge.  Sometimes I agree with him, other times not. But that is not the point, is it? The point is that he looks to influence by hurling thunderbolts of brilliance at agencies.

There have been moments of brilliance. Some people did great research raising significant questions about Housing New Zealand’s policies on methamphetamine contamination in state housing. As Chief Science Advisor, Gluckman parlayed this research into an excellent report which led to a crucial change in policy and practice. But it was mostly all about him. Although he set up a network of science advisors in government agencies, that network lacked leadership and was undeveloped until recently.

The new Chief Science Advisor is a very different sort of person. Professor Juliet Gerrard is a behind-the-scenes organiser who speaks softly and takes her responsibilities very seriously, especially in relation to marshalling advice on the pandemic. The CSA website notes: “Juliet’s vision for the role centres around four qualities: rigour, inclusivity, transparency and accessibility.  She aims to create a trusted bridge between science, society and government.”

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Anyway, back to the document which is the topic of this blog. Do not be confused by the title of this document as a “conversation piece”. It may have emerged from a conversation between the three authors but it neither opens up a conversation nor provides much in the way of solutions. It expounds.

It is not a research-based piece either. There are no references.  It came out of the heads of the three people. It was said to be ‘peer-reviewed’ by David Skegg.  But it wasn’t. Peer review relates to a process of understanding a research piece within the context of a field of research.  As I said, it was not a research piece so peer review was not possible.

Is it a brilliant piece? The answer is no.  There is nothing much new in it.  The basic thesis is that closing down our borders is much easier than opening them up again. But open them up we must, at some stage.  If I had written this piece for The Daily Blog, you would barely have blinked.  This is all about the authors, not the content.

I am sure that the Government’s science advice networks, researchers and contractors are heavily into working through the scenarios for re-opening.  I am also certain that, for the time being, people want to stay in New Zealand’s Covid-free bubble.

The trouble with this paper is threefold.  One, it purports to be a research paper from a think tank, but is not.  Second, it appears to have literally come out of a conversation between the three authors, perhaps over a power lunch or something, but uses their names, not the quality of their thought, to give it prominence.  

Finally, as I keep saying, the Covid is a highly political pandemic, and this is a highly political think piece.  The battle over re-opening, the economic versus the health, will be played out on the election field. This piece has given ammunition for National to critique the government’s approach.  You can hear Mr Whitebread now, telling the electorate that even Helen Clark, guru of the Labour movement, is urging the government to hurry up and find ways to re-open the borders.

I sometimes use this blog to report research findings.  When I do so I am always clear to separate my opinions from research.  I was therefore shocked to read about the Gluckman et al piece, shockeder (one needs a neologism now and again) to read it and realise it was just an opinion piece, not a research report and absolutely kerfuffled that these authors would dump this piece onto the media, who would lap it up as if God said it. In my view, this report is practically an abuse of power, and certainly a slap in the face for the Government.

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. Great stuff thanks Liz.

    Clark should butt out this is really unhelpful.

    The minute the borders are open – and lets face it it depends who you are whether they will open for you – and the virus gets back into the community, there will be an uproar ‘they shouldn’t have opened up’ frankly I am much more interested in saving people’s lives.

  2. I agree 100% with you Liz as this is a opinion piece only from Gluckman entirely.

    he has always seen singing John Key’s song to open up the country to foreign interests so no surprise there.

    If Gluckman had done his job right he should have warned the Government far earlier the pandemic was coming in December 2019 when it was first reported to the WHO but he failed then.

    Then in March 17th WHO warned Gluckman and all counties to “Test test Test” otherwise WHO said “we would be flying blind” and we were.

    LAUSANNE/ZURICH (Reuters) –

    The World Health Organization called on all countries on Monday to ramp up their testing programs as the best way to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic, and also urged companies to boost production of vital equipment to overcome acute shortages.
    “We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva, calling the pandemic “the defining global health crisis of our time”.
    WHO calls for “change of mindset” to overcome pandemic shortages
    “All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.”
    Without testing, cases cannot be isolated and the chain of infection will not be broken, he said.

    Dr Gluckman was proven to be of no use then so I don’t respect his “advice now”

  3. Dr Gordon-I’m glad you published this. I was not comfortable with this trio but wasn’t sure why.
    With due respect Clark, Fyfe and Gluckman are yesterdays gurus. Their opinions are no more , actually less relevant than Adern, Roberston, Gerrard and Bloomfield who are today’s leaders.

    • On the other hand if as Dr Gordon says ‘The basic thesis is that closing down our borders is much easier than opening them up again. But open them up we must, at some stage,’ then there’s nothing new in that and nothing to condemn and nothing to praise. In other words we all know that already.

  4. When you put together three business-as-usual liars who have no credentials to determine anything you must expect more lies and fantasies.

    Sadly, there are still people in NZ who think these three snouts-in-the-trough have something worthwhile to say, when a tiny bit of research demonstrates they don’t. Kind of the dumb leading the even dumber.

  5. Great article Liz. All four of the above comments are spot on.
    The global capitalist system sits on a precipice. It drove itself there. As we all know, the very nature of this economic system is unsustainable. Climate change, pandemic, increasing generational poverty etc – the damage is mounting.
    In the USA & other parts of the world, the worker-slaves are getting restless as they are thrown on the scrapheap.
    It is not surprising – but no less disturbing – that paid voices are agitating for border relaxation, as the system must take priority over lives in the minds of the 1% and those who enjoy power. And they are getting increasingly nervous about the situation.

    For the rest of us the answer is obvious of course – change the bleedin’ system!

  6. A few not so idle thoughts:
    1. Does Mr. Gluckman have his nose out of joint because his successor is developing an effective effective model based on sound and inclusive scientific principles rather than adopting his omnipotent style?
    2. Has Mr. Fyfe realised that his currency has gone since he proved ineffective in the Covid-19 liaison role he had.
    3. Is Ms. Clark a bit miffed because her assumed young pupil has proved capable of delivering more than she could?

  7. After seeing what happened in Victoria we almost need armed soldiers to patrol some of the returnees, this is sad but some people just don’t seem to care. Its a real pity we have to let them back in our team of five million (bubble) as these types of people have the potential to make it( our bubble ) burst.

  8. Premises, suburbs, cities and countries are being locked down because of increasing positive Covid results. They are increasing because more testing is being done. Added to this is that the testing is not accurate nor meaningful; you cannot accurately compare everyone’s genetic code quantitatively with markers, and you certainly can’t do it with an unnamed blackbox testing kit in the field. This virus affects every individual differently and it is also mutating, so sequencing the virus and mapping the population is like trying to solve a million sided Rubik cube while all the sides are constantly changing colour. It is the death count that matters (which is not applicable to two thirds of the world who are mostly asymptomatic) and these statistics are being manipulated by some countries for political purposes. We need to see how the death rates have increased above historical levels for all causes, we need to see how the science is being conducted and reported, and we need to see this virus in perspective as another risk, otherwise society will cease to function.

  9. Liz, you are right that Gluckman et al. is not a research article. However, we need to address the question of how to live in a world where the virus is rampant. IMO, admittedly not research-based, we are very likely at some stage to get at least one, and probably more than one, new instance of community transmission in New Zealand, and so rather than congratulate ourselves and go back to normal, we need to alter our behaviour. This was the helpful message I saw in Gluckman et al.; we need to become very serious about contact tracing. So far, amid the euphoria of virus squashing, we have let our guard down and we need to collectively raise it again rather than simply admonish the government for inevitable leakage at our border. Anyone with any experience in biosecurity should be able to tell you that this is true, research or no research.

  10. The idea that National , Hosking, Garner etc, want an Australiasian bubble immediately has now shown to be negligent at best and criminal at worst. 191 new cases today in Victoria alone.
    I,d say Ardern deserves a Queens honour.

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