Photograph of Professor Michael Baker

Michael Baker speaks to Trust Democracy’s AGM

Watch the video or read the transcript of Professor Michael Baker speaking to Trust Democracy's 2023 AGM about disinformation, science, trust, democracy, and the newly established Public Health Communication Centre, download his presentation slides and access Trust Democracy’s AGM reports, statements and minutes.
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Trust Democracy’s Annual General Meeting was held on 9 May 2023 by videoconference. It featured an engaging and insightful presentation by Professor Michael Baker, the Director of the newly established Public Health Communication Centre, entitled: “Trust Democracy and Public Health: Much in Common”. 

The video and transcript of Prof Baker’s address are available below. Trust Democracy’s reports, statements and minutes for its 2023 Annual General Meeting can be accessed by clicking here.

As a taster, a selection Prof Baker’s themes are listed below.

The need for strong democratic institutions

According to Prof Baker, “advancing public health … really does … depend on strong democratic institutions and processes” – by definition.

“Public Health is the science and art of promoting health, preventing disease and prolonging life through the organised efforts of society.”

Strong democratic institutions are needed to counteract the “commercial determinants of health … [that] drive health inequity … Market fundamentalism and … powerful transnational corporations have created a pathological system in which commercial actors are increasingly enabled to cause harm and externalise the cost of doing so.” 

The need for evidence-informed strategy

Reflecting on the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Zealand and its lessons, Prof Baker noted: 

“One of the things … during the pandemic is we saw how important it was to have an evidence-informed strategy, and … it was a very vivid example of effective science and good political leadership.”

As a result of this, “New Zealand is still the only significant country in terms of population size to have achieved net zero excess mortality during the course of the pandemic … Of course, it doesn’t stop the stream of misinformation and disinformation.”

Disinformation and health

Given the influence of “huge global forces”, Prof Baker believes “it’s quite hard to identify really systematic strategies that are going to mean … suddenly, disinformation disappearing” , but he noted how damaging dis- and mis-information are.

“Misinformation, disinformation systematically erodes … a person’s decision to take health seeking behaviour. And you can see how if any of these weak links are broken, for example, telling people that COVID-19 is a mild illness or the pandemic’s fake, you’re not going to go and get vaccination at that point.”

The impacts extend beyond COVID-19. Vaccination rates have dropped since the end of the pandemic, which means that “New Zealand is now very vulnerable for a measles epidemic”.

Has science itself contributed to dissatisfaction in science?

In response to this question, Prof Baker said: 

“I’ve spent my whole life getting to grips with the idea that there’s nothing true in science. It’s just things that you are trying to refute endlessly, and that you’re building a sand castle that’s endlessly being washed away by the waves. And you’re building a new one.

And that level of uncertainty, I don’t think it always washes that well with everyone, because people want, particularly when they’re anxious, they want really hard knowledge.”

A vote of thanks

Trust Democracy would like to sincerely thank Prof Baker for presenting at our AGM and sharing his passion for Public Health, science and democracy. Clearly there are lots of areas of common ground such as concerns about whether electoral politics can adequately address long term issues, the undue influence of powerful interests, the capacity of the public service and the need for democratic innovation and experimentation.


After an introduction from Simon Wright, who was chairing the AGM, Michael Baker’s presentation starts at 03:16. The Q&A starts at 30:44.


Michael Baker

Kia ora koutou everyone. I’m actually calling you from Oslo, where I’m based for 3 months, and I was really delighted when Simon approached me to join your meeting, because I think it’s real privilege, and I feel I’m really talking with very like minded people.

So I’ll just share my … one of the hosts will share the screen for me, but I know whenever I talk with Simon, I’ve been very impressed by the discourse you’re promoting about better ways of running democracies. And as I’m going to, I think, illustrate, there’s a huge synergies between what, I think, you’re trying to achieve, and what you could say is a public health agenda.

So, being an academic, of course, I have lots of slides, but hopefully we’ll have plenty of time for discussion as well. 

So hopefully you can see that okay and you can hear me okay, but let me know if there’s any issues.

So, looking on your website, I can see that Trust Democracy is looking at ways of making democracy work as it should. And here’s one definition of public health: it’s … but the critical part of this, it’s through the organised efforts of society.

Obviously it supports treating those who are ill but it’s much more concerned with what we call ‘population health’ and working ‘upstream’, and, as we’ll discuss, looking at the determinants of health.

So today, I’m gonna talk a bit about the New Public Health Communication Centre, the idea of evidence informed policy, which I’m sure is very familiar to all of you, improving government decision making processes – and you probably know more about this area than I do. We certainly … I’ll certainly touch on some quite vivid examples from public health – the idea of informing the public – that is one thing we try to do but also providing some protection from disinformation.

Simon Wright: 

So, Michael, could you just share your slides?

Michael Baker: 

Oh, sorry, are they not, are they not sharing okay? I suddenly saw a big picture of myself, and I thought that they were sharing. So …

Simon Wright: 

There we go, that’s it.

Michael Baker: 

Yep, OK, just take a quick view there.

So yeah, great to join you and your AGM. And one of the things I was looking at is the commonality. The Venn diagram of your interests and those in public health, and I think the overlap is very large, and I did note you were focusing on making democracy work as it should. And this is … I think, a very nice definition of public health. It’s about the science and art of promoting health of any disease, and for prolonging life. But it’s got this huge focus on the organised efforts of society that … so it goes beyond just the treatment of people who are ill.

And so today I was gonna talk about the role of the Public Health Communication Centre, supporting evidence-informed policy, better decision making processes, and this area of informing the public and protecting against disinformation. We feel we’ve got a limited role in this area, but we are contributing.

So the new Public Health Communication Centre: its purpose and rationale, what it is and what it does. So it’s funded by an endowment from the philanthropic Gamma Foundation. So it’s a small team, and it was launched in February this year. So our purpose is promoting policy practice and public awareness that protects and improves the health, wellbeing and equity of the people of Aotearoa, but also the health of the environment in which we live. So it sounds easy. But then the challenging part is actually how you achieve that.

So one thing we are aware of is that we have a wealth of public health expertise and research. I think the pandemic illustrated why you need independent advice and also the fact that actually we’re not talking about incrementalism, we’re talking really about the need for transformational changes.

And one of the other longer-term trends is what appears to be a reduced pool of independent voices, and we’ve seen that, for example, with Te Whatu Ora – the fact that there’s now one government agency that covers all of the public health units, which, in a way used to have a greater level of independence. And we can also see how there’s some constraints on independent spokes-people in those organisations.

Also, obviously, there’s pressure on the media and the fact that increasingly we are … of how public health research is competing against well resourced commercial interest groups.

One of the things, of course, during the pandemic is: we saw how important it was to have an evidence-informed strategy, and, I think, it was a very vivid example of effective science and good political leadership.

And we really saw that very vividly during that period, and I think that’s contributed to really motivating us all to try and take some of the best things we’ve learned from that, and extend it. 

So we actually have a small group. We have 2 full-time staff and a part-time Centre manager. And then very part-time directors and affiliated researchers who are forming the core group. We also have an excellent board who meet periodically to give us strategic advice.

So the things we do. We host an online publication that’s actually evolved from what used to be a blog that we ran for 10 years. But obviously we’ve got a lot more resources now to increase the quality and reach of this. And we’re obviously trying to highlight important research and evidence through a range of other channels as well. Obviously media releases, op-eds and social media. And also direct contact with researchers, journalists, and policy professionals.

So when we try and think about, schematically, what are we trying to achieve? Well, we could split this slightly. It’s a 2-way relationship. It’s really a network. But we can think about policy- or content-producers. So, researchers, partner-organisations, the wider research community, and really this massive international literature and information. So this is source material. 

And then we’ve got a range of channels. I mentioned The Briefing, social media, more standard media, and also organised submissions. 

And when we started off, I think a lot of the time people thought our goal is to communicate with the New Zealand public. But actually our primary focus is on policymakers. We’ll accept that health practitioners are also a distinct audience. But the public, of course is, as we know, so segmented. It’s very [difficult] for anyone to say we are actually communicating, I think, with the public.

So when we are looking at the area of evidence-informed policy, making a lot of this as around agenda-setting, identifying emerging issues, often reframing them. And then this area of evidence translation, particularly around new interventions, which can be quite transformative. But often it’s about tracking and updating issues we know very well, and saying the evidence is continuing to evolve.

I mean an issue like New Zealand’s move towards eliminating tobacco use as a public health problem has been 60 years in the making, so we are always putting out the requirements. It’s not, in a way, an emerging issue, but it has many new strands, such as vaping, for instance.

So The Briefing doesn’t have a regular cycle. We put it out as issues appear, and it’s highlighting new research, putting it in an international context, often commenting on breaking news and analysis of policy developments.

So this is the kind of thing we can do. For example, looking at recent flooding events and climate disruption, we can try and put these in a longer term context of sudden mass-fatality events created by public health disasters, and where this event fits in that sequence, and the fact that very rarely are these events occurring in isolation. So it’s something we can do to, again, give them a wider context. 

We can look at, this is a very specific example, for instance, a genuinely emerging problem with the rise of an invasive, streptococcal disease. I mean it’s a bacterium that deserves a lot of respect. It causes rheumatic fever, toxic shock syndrome, scarlet fever and even a whole range of things, but it’s also emerging more as an invasive infection. So we had to take a specific angle on making this a notifiable condition, for instance, and while we put this out in our briefing, we then engage with the media, and that actually gives these stories much more impact, and journalists are looking for high quality, well-informed content.

This is again another issue where it’s really around reframing and, this was when we launched the new Centre, we put out a series of explainer-issues, picking up bigger issues like how you respond to things like inequality.

This is an example of an issue we’ve been checking for a few years: nitrate contamination in drinking water. And so we put out an item on this really more than 2 years ago in our old format, and then that led to a lot of media interest. And we see the way these issues roll through the media and then eventually getting a lot of pick up and drawing in other interested groups like the College of Midwives, and ultimately leading to wider review, and eventually a funded research on this topic. 

So this shows the way in which something you pick up on early can actually … and it needs to have a long-term focus. It’s an important issue.

We also do some systematic content analysis of some issues to see how they’re being managed in the media. This is obviously quite labour intensive. So we’d only do it for something that we’re really going to track for a sustained period.

So beyond The Briefing, we do a lot of other things that we’re building up as we get more resources and better established. And I think that nitrate issue would be an example of why we would run with some issues for maybe a number of years.

So one area where I think there’s a lot of overlap with what we’re doing, and I think the ideals that you’re promoting, is really government decision making processes.

 And this is thinking about what are some of the high level frameworks for thinking about the efforts in New Zealand. And obviously there’s a tradition that goes back, I guess, millennia about how societies make decisions and the concept of better democracy. We also think about, particularly the commercial determinants of health are a huge driver we’re very conscious of, and some specific goals like the shift to long-term thinking.

So one of the frameworks that you may have picked up on is the idea of Sustainable Development Goals and effect by the UN. And it is obviously a very aspirational global agenda. And I know many of these pick up on what we call public health concerns, but also some of them on decision-making and democratic concerns. And the Sustainable Development Goals 16, for instance, around building effective accountability and inclusive institutions.

Obviously some of this is quite anodyne, because it has to be taken up by all countries on earth, and they may not necessarily warm to a very explicit statement about the benefits of democratic decision making, for instance, but I think buried in here are some still some very good principles.

But in a more specific area, we are focusing a lot more interest, and that is addressing the commercial determinants of health. And there’s a huge series in The Lancet of about 30 papers. It’s just started.  I haven’t read all of them. I just started flicking through them. But it’s pointing out that these commercial determinants of health are the systems, practices and pathways in which commercial actors drive health inequity.

And really this series, and I think many others who looked at this area, have catalogued a huge range of concerns. And this shift towards market fundamentalism and these powerful transnational corporations have created a pathological system in which commercial actors are increasingly enabled to cause harm and externalise the cost of doing so. 

And they’ve got some nice models which show the real complexity of this area. But some of the fundamentals are actually very simple I think. So in New Zealand, there’s quite a focus at the moment, and this is Health Coalition Aotearoa, I think, are really leading this, looking at the role of lobbyists and the need for greater restrictions on how lobbyists can operate and some of the data collected, and on the access that lobbyists have, you know, the most blatant example being that the swipe-cards: issues come up.

But of course it goes much deeper than that, and I think we also very grateful for organisations like Transparency International, which I guess regularly flag New Zealand as right at the top in terms of transparency. But there are many facets to this area. 

One quite specific aspect of government processes is one that we’ve really highlighted. This was the first of our “explain” issues when we launched the new Centre: the need for long-term thinking. And you can really look at just how much we are trapped in a very short term perspective when many people would argue, and there’s actually even a whole philosophy, long-termism, that you need to be looking at not just the health of those alive now but those that are yet to be born and just thinking, to what extent do we value the future as opposed to say just valuing what’s right in front of us. Government is concerned about this, and there are some reforms, but I think we need to go a lot further.

It is always interesting how a lot of this is. It takes on, obviously, a political air. And this is: 

“So dictatorship of the unelected academics is still running. What remains of the Government’s Covid policy”.

“Mark my words, life would be very different if we had our hands on the helm”.

And of course Emerson always seems like quite a sympathetic cartoonist, obviously positioning this thinking in the graveyard, which we all enjoyed, of course, in public health.

So there’s obviously a whole lot of other key issues here. And how we improve information to the public and provide some protection from disinformation. So this issue around trust in science impacted disinformation, health-seeking behaviour, and the whole social licence for government action.

So, looking at some of these things, certainly in the first year of the pandemic, surveys showed there was very high levels of trust in scientists and government. This survey may have been, I think, done in 2020, and reported after that.

We know that a pandemic is a very unusual special case. We need high quality information to inform people because the behaviour of individuals affects population risk. That’s a special feature of infectious diseases. Ultimately it builds trust and collective action and social licence. So I think that was a golden period for very high public support. For what a collective response!

And one of the things we always think, and this is about framing, if you have a successful response, we say a public health triumph: nothing happened.

And this is partly the problem: that if you get it right, if you control the pandemic, its source and minimise its harm, you do get the fact that there’s very little visible impact. And actually, the science really does show that in New Zealand’s case.

And so this is quite a complex graph. But it’s basically reporting what we think is still the best indicator of the success or otherwise of a pandemic response.

And this is cumulative excess mortality during the course of the pandemic. And countries like the US and the UK lost about 0.3% of their populations from COVID-19, because their responses were quite poor. Countries in our region did better; say Singapore, Australia, New Zealand. We all took elimination approaches and pushed down mortality particularly early in the pandemic.

But New Zealand is still the only significant country in terms of population size to have achieved net zero excess mortality during the course of the pandemic and that’s actually right up to quite recently. That’s the situation. And that’s because the pandemic measures also stop other infectious diseases. So, in a sense, yes, nothing happened. According to one metric, anyway, in New Zealand.

So hopefully, the public appreciates that the work of government, the workers themselves, and, I think, the huge work of our public sector have achieved very good outcomes.

Of course, it doesn’t stop the stream of misinformation and disinformation.

I remember, during the occupation, this guy was waving his sign around there, which was, of course, completely wrong, but it was always in the camera about natural immunity 99.6% effective. He obviously wasn’t keeping up with the New England Journal of Medicine, which said it was at that time about 46% effective.

So I think the high point of disinformation for me was the scene where a group at the occupation were wearing their foiled helmets to deal with the EMR radiation beaming out of Parliament. And they said: ‘actually, we have to leave’ because they’d stripped a local supermarket of its supply of foil. 

And, at that time, there was also this interview on Counterspin with Liz Gunn, who couldn’t get through the interview because she actually had COVID-19 at the time. 

So it was a strange parallel universe, and I think not that much overlap in the Venn diagrams in terms of our source science that we’re dealing with. 

And I think the public is obviously quite alarmed. This is a survey done in New Zealand about the public perception of having encountered misinformation – somewhat or very concerned – and think that misinformation is influencing people’s views about public health. So I think the public has those concerns.

And, so this is a very detailed diagram, but I’m going to just make a point is that what people know and think really does matter. And that’s because it does affect their behaviours. 

And this is a cognitive model about how people make health decisions. And it basically says you’ve got these domains of perceived susceptibility, severity, benefits, barriers, cues to action, and so on, self-efficacy. And so health information contributes to all of these things. So that decision to vaccinate against something like measles for your children would depend on looking at these kinds of cues, and so on.

And this is the same thing again – sorry there’s so much text there – but the point is that misinformation, disinformation systematically erodes all of these strands that contribute to a person’s decision to take health seeking behaviour. And you can see how if any of these weak links are broken, for example, telling people that COVID-19 is a mild illness or the pandemic’s fake, you’re not going to go and get vaccination at that point. So you only have to … it’s quite a fragile thing – health seeking behaviour – and this link can be broken at many points along the way. 

And we’re seeing this now with immunisation coverage for childhood vaccinations. It was declining before the pandemic but it really is taking a big dive, particularly for Maori and Pacific children. And so this is now creating the fact that New Zealand is very vulnerable for a measles epidemic, and probably whooping cough or pertussis as well.

So how do you respond to disinformation?

Well, I’m gonna talk/mention briefly something, you know, we think: fact checking. Really we don’t spend much time on fact checking.

This was one of my few attempts to do this, and this is when that well known epidemiologist, Naz, said that she had a very mild experience with COVID-19. “I’ve had other normal flus which have been a 100 times worse” and she was making the case for the fact that really we didn’t need to do anything much about it. And so I just had to point out that … that it’s a major error of thinking generalising from her experience to the entire world.

But generally, fact checking is not going to be terribly productive. And it’s partly because we’re up against huge global forces here. 

There are some political parties that are promoting blatant disinformation. Fortunately they get very little … very few votes. 

Obviously Fox. And then you have these global groups, the Great Barrington Declaration. We had COVID Plan B in New Zealand early in the pandemic. So we can see these huge forces operating. 

We’ve looked at disinformation. Other groups are looking at it a great deal. We had a one day course on it in February that John Kerr convened, and had a huge amount of interest.

But again, it’s quite hard to identify really systematic strategies that are going to mean that we’re not going to see, suddenly, disinformation disappearing.

One aspect is protecting the messenger. I’ve talked to a lot of other people who are involved in commenting about issues like the pandemic response. And after a while you start to encounter really quite extreme pushback from organised efforts. 

Myself and my family were highly –  I would say – amused to suddenly see these billboards appearing with my face on it across the country with a comment: “It was only designed to nudge people towards vaccination”. And that really had most of us scratching our heads about what on earth they were trying to say there. 

And at 1 point I was really … I joined … I moved from the ‘Team of 5 million’ to the ‘Team of 5 tyrants’. 

And had blogs by the wonderful commentator, Cameron Slater, who … I joined that list of people, public health people, who he has absolutely attacked over the years, and he’s actually with some convicted of, and fined, for some of the disinformation he produced on some very well-established public health advocates.

And one of the more extreme examples … I had a fake account – Michael Faker was set up, which put out vaguely plausible sounding disinformation under my name, with my photo and name there. It was only when you looked more closely you could see it was Michael Faker.

But this person really went for it  – an average of 12 tweets a day for over a year – starting at 5 in the morning and going to 9 pm at night. I just don’t know how he had the … or she had the time. We asked for it to be taken down many times. Eventually it was taken down.

So I think, just in conclusion, advancing public health – it really does depend on well functioning democratic processes. And we can think about the infrastructure, the strategic thinking, delivery interventions, research, and so on. And fundamentally it’s about addressing these key determinants, particularly the commercial determinants, of health. And that does depend on strong democratic institutions and processes. So I really think we have a lot of common interests here to discuss.

Thank you.

[The audience were randomly assigned to 5 groups so that they could discuss the issues raised in the presentation and develop a question for group spokespeople to pose to Michael Baker when the meeting reconvened in plenary]

Simon Wright: 

Okay, we had 5 groups. So would one of the spokespeople from one of the groups like to pose Michael a question.

I don’t know if you know what number group you are in. If you do, let’s have group one.

So unmute yourself and then ask your question, please.


Oh, yes, okay. Well, I made a quick comment about wanting to broaden the conversation around New Zealand about measures of deprivation, health and education, and socioeconomics from one largely around one ethnic group to broaden it out to include all of those groups that are disadvantaged in some way. But that’s not the question. The question we agreed, and I got nominated – I had my arm twisted to ask the question – it’s this: has science itself contributed to dissatisfaction in science, and if so, what could science, itself, do to redeem it?

So it’s a very broad question. But, Michael, I don’t know whether you can think of an answer off the top of your head.

Michael Baker: 

Well, one of the things about science that I think people possibly – and I’ve spent my whole life getting to grips with the idea that there’s nothing true in science. It’s just things that you are trying to refute endlessly, and that you’re building a sand castle that’s endlessly being washed away by the waves. And you’re building a new one.

And that level of uncertainty, I don’t think it always washes that well with everyone, because people want, particularly when they’re anxious, they want really hard knowledge.

And the idea, when you say well, we’re putting forward what we think is our best evidence for something but it may actually change in the future, I think may weaken some of our arguments, particularly when they are up against ideological certainty that this is the way the world is, and perhaps, and even theology and belief systems. So I think it’s one of the issues about science that perhaps we haven’t been very good at communicating the fact that it’s all about degrees of certainty.


Thank you.

Simon Wright: 

Thank you. Brilliant thanks, Michael. The next group, what would your question be?

Just unmute yourself and then ask away.


I’ll have a go right. So our question was related to disinformation and the commercialisation of determinants, determinants of health, and actually none of us had to come across that term before. So it makes a lot of sense with what’s going on at the moment. 

But the question is: how can New Zealand develop evidence that we can trust when we have lost the ability to produce the evidence? And so that was in relation to the loss of some of the organisations, you know, like NZGG, the New Zealand Guidelines Group, and others, and I just wondered if you had a view on this.

Michael Baker: 

Yeah. Well, I’ve been around long enough to have seen to some extent the erosion of some of our, I think, core science expertise and government agencies and the replacement by the generic policy analyst who can be plugged and played on any topic supposedly. And we just seek the knowledge from content experts as required.

And I think it’s quite a naive approach, and I know, looking at institutions like the Ministry of Health and others, that I saw during the pandemic, where, because they’d been so decreased in capacity, because they become small ministries, they are really run by short-term labour, contract labour from the accounting firms. And even the transformation of the health system was largely supported by contractors, and, I think, that’s a real limitation of our central government agencies.

Outside that, I think we’ve had a lot of reorganisations of science, and I think that we’ve got the Crown Research Institutes, and then, because other attempts to try and consolidate science to give it more critical mass, and you’ve got the centres for research excellence, and also the science challenges.

These, I think, are all attempts to try and organise our limited science resource around dealing with major problems, and I think they’ve all got real weaknesses. I haven’t been tracking some of the current discussion documents about reorganising science, but I think it’s been a succession of different experimental models which haven’t succeeded very well. The sum effect is that we’ve really decreased, I think, our science and technical capacity in central government. 

I don’t know if that’s addressed your concern but I think we are one of the few countries in the world – I think you mentioned the Guidelines group – one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a real health technology assessment capacity, which, you know, is a real weakness. And it needs to look at things like cost-effectiveness, and so on. So, yeah, I absolutely agree.

I don’t have an obvious simple answer. But I do think we need robust, sustained institutions in New Zealand that can allow science to really flourish.

Simon Wright: 

Could we move on to the next question, please?


That’s good, can I jump in there? Kia ora Professor Baker. Look, I am really interested to hear you talking about the lack of strategic focus that we’ve had as a country, and I know Sir Peter Gluckman’s done some work in that space as well. My interest here is climate change, and it seems to me that we could do with a similar centre for communication around climate change. Just interested in your thoughts about how transferable the Public Health Communications Centre might be as a good model for use in other sectors, such as climate change and elsewhere.

Michael Baker: 

Yeah. No, it’s a really good question. And as soon as you start thinking about centres, you start to sort of look around to see: are there some models internationally? And actually there are, you know: the Science Media Centre, who I think, do an excellent job, is one of the few models that has been adopted by quite a few countries. But beyond that, there aren’t many. There’s no other public health communication centre I know of. I suspect there are some groups focusing on climate change internationally that you could perhaps look at.

I think that the core model is very transferable. I mean, we do have, in our, in our brief, looking at the broad idea of a healthy, sustainable environment, which obviously includes the climate, and we think that’s a much more important issue than pandemics, even though I do a lot of work on pandemics. This is the one we have to get right. I think there’s so much support for that, so we will certainly, until something better comes along, we’ll certainly do our best to help.

Simon Wright: 

Okay, thanks, Michael. Thanks for the question, Chris. RIght, the fourth group.


I think, yeah, I think we were … we might have been a third group, but so sorry, apologies to anyone else that was group four. But our group was interested in this concept of long-termism, and wanted to ask Michael: how can you promote and develop trust and issues that are long term? How can you persuade people to trust a policy when it’s impossible to prove how things will play out. You can do modelling and so on. But people can’t see that that is definitely the way it’s going to play out. And I think what Chris mentioned there with the parallels with just using climate change is one of those examples. People can say that, you know, if we don’t do this now, in the future this is what’s going to be the effect on the planet. But then other people will look at that and say, but we don’t know that it’s going to be the effect. And if we have some scientific invention that’s going to save us, then that won’t, you know, won’t be as catastrophic as we think. So trying to get buy-in for a policy, whatever it is, whether it’s climate change, or whatever from people on a long-term policy is, it seems, quite, quite challenging.

Michael Baker: 

Hmm, yeah, look, I think this is the challenge of our age in many ways is how to look over the hill at things we can’t see right in our face, even though I think we can see it in our face, how to act on those things, and, in fact, do things that require us to invest in things which means having less resources for maybe other more immediate priorities to achieve that.

And hopefully, these are … we can frame these as really positive trade-offs that people were making. But yeah, this is where you need … this is why, you know, the IPCC has just put out, obviously, its sixth report. I mean, it’s overwhelming evidence from multiple disciplines about the need to act. And I think just even the descriptions seem to be getting more and more vivid about the consequences. So yeah, I think it’s a massive task that … the communication goal.

When we looked at; you’ve got long-term thinking, and long-termism is this particular moral philosophy which is quite interesting, and some good books have come out about it, but one thing will be to shift to a 4- or 5-year political term; the other is to shift decision making on key issues away from the political, the elected political realm, and put them more into long-term commissions. Just like we’ve got a Parliamentary Commissioner for the environment. We could have one for catastrophic risk.

One specifically, I’m not quite sure what institution we’ve got for climate change, but just thinking about this, and yeah, I think the good point, and Jonathan Boston has written about this and others. I think that people studying government have looked at ways of doing this. There are mechanisms in a number of countries that are ahead of New Zealand, I think, in doing this.

Otherwise you see what we’re seeing at the moment is these really short-term, very frustrating, trade-offs for electability, trading off some of the obvious climate change goals against, you know, the bread-and-butter budget or whatever we’re gonna have. So we want to shift that stuff away from the short-term political expediency environment we’re in.


Thank you.

You’re muted, Simon.

Simon Wright: 

Okay, I’m unmuted now. I think there’s one more group with a question. Am I right?


Yes, our group still had a question too. It’s okay if you want to skip over it. 

Simon Wright: 

This is the last question, so make it a good one!


Well, we were really interested in the institutions of democracy that we perhaps need focus on to be strengthened. And you’ve since referenced that as being ones that allow science to flourish. But are there any further thoughts or ideas as to which institutions and which elements of that are or should be a particular focus. And what we should do to strengthen those institutions.

Michael Baker: 

Yeah, I think some of the more novel forms of decision making that I know your group has talked about and I know Simon is someone very actively involved in, and I think we do need to explore those and give it and resource them much better. 

But I do think, trying to identify ways of shifting a lot of critical medium- to long-term issues out of the day-to-day political fray, and put them more in the form of commissions that are really empowered to get on and work on them with a multi-year or multi-decade agenda, and they are given real authority to do that. And I think, in a way, the Public Sector Act, which shifted the dynamic between ministers and the government departments from the nineties, has really been problematic, because it’s meant that the government agencies that might have … that used to lead their own agendas can’t do that now. They’re much more, as I understand it, responsive to ministers. And so I think we, if that’s going to be the model, we do need separate institutions that have, I think, the ability to run with these issues, take them out of the … of the political round to some degree. You still have to have accountability but make it much more accountable for long-term as a process, and I’m not an expert in how to do that, but it’s certainly possible.

Simon Wright: 

Okay, thanks for that, Michael. Good question, Carla.

Now I’m gonna call to a close to this part of the AGM. I’d like to thank Michael sincerely for leading with his talk, and leading this session. So perhaps we could all just show our appreciation and we’ll say farewell to Michael.

Michael Baker: 

Yeah, thank you, thank you very much for having me. I really felt I was in a group with like minded people, and I really hope to carry on the discussion in the future, and I really look forward to the wonderful new initiatives that your organisation can really promote in New Zealand, because we really need them. So thank you very much for all the good work you’re doing. Thank you.

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