The total five-year budget for the census, granted by the National government, was $120m. The last census in 2013 cost about $90m.
The issue wasn’t funding, or being mainly digital. It was simple logistics. Stats NZ it seems failed to have enough temporary staff available to follow up those who didn’t complete it online. They should have had an army of door knockers.
Smith said the census had been historically apolitical and accepted by all parts of civil society, but this could change with the latest census.
If Stats NZ said it was confident with its final census results following the backfill Smith wanted to see the evidence the numbers were good before fully accepting them.
If National were to dispute the results it could have a serious impact on the integrity of the electoral system, as electorate boundaries are drawn based on census results and can have serious electoral consequences.
At a recent function. a number of National MPs told me they were adamantly opposed to boundaries being redrawn on data which has 10% of the population missing. I don’t think any amount of manipulation by cross-referencing other data sources will give them confidence compared to a proper census count. This is why we have a census.
I think the Government needs to seriously consider doing a bipartisan law change to give certainty by saying the 2020 election will occur on the existing boundaries. Pushing ahead with new boundaries on the basis of incomplete data which many MPs don’t trust could lead to a collapse in confidence in our system of boundary setting. We do not want to end up with a US system where the majority can ignore the minority.
Stats NZ has acknowledged internally a “high risk” it may not meet its statutory obligation of providing census population data for the redrawing of electoral boundaries.
Commission chairman Sir Hugh Williams, QC, told a parliamentary select committee last week that, for the necessary redraw to be done for Election 2020, Stats NZ would have to release census data no later than September 2019.
And they current date for release is possibly August 2019. Even if you could reassure MPs on the quality issue, this is cutting it too fine. Having final boundaries set in March 2020 would be a nightmare for a possible September 2020 election. Better to go for certainty and keep the current boundaries.
But if the 2018 census data is deemed not fit for boundaries, then the next scheduled census is 2023. That would mean the 2023 election would also be on current boundaries which would be undesirable.
There is a simple solution. Since 1881 the census was always on a year ending with a 1 or a 6. The 2011 Canterbury earthquake made the 2011 census impractical so it was delayed until 2013, and hence the next one was 2018.
The Government should set the date of the next census to be 2021. This would be doubly beneficial. It would allow the 2023 election to have new boundaries, but it would also restore the dates to the traditional years, which makes long-term comparisons much much better.
Stats NZ may claim there isn’t enough time, but there is. If the Government announced it in the next few months, that still leaves two years for a 2021 census. Rather than consult on different questions, they could just keep the exact same question as they had in 2018.
Any other decision is going to lead to real problems with the electoral boundaries. And these decisions can have a huge impact on individual MPs, and through them their parties. We need to get it right.