Government Statistician Liz MacPherson is facing contempt of Parliament after being ordered by MPs to produce census information.
In an unusual move, a select committee invoked a standing order compelling Statistics NZ chief executive to produce the number of partial responses were received in Census 2018.
MacPherson was first asked by to provide the answer by the governance and administration select committee during its annual review in February, and again on Wednesday. Both times she declined.
The chief statistician now says she will provide the information – which could further reveal the extent of Census 2018 issues – not on the given April 10 deadline but as part of an announcement promised later in the month.
What part of parliamentary accountability is not understood? Giving information to select committees is not voluntary.
Stats NZ has remained tight-lipped about its efforts to patch up the long overdue Census 2018 results, which failed to count one in ten New Zealanders.
National state services spokesman Dr Nick Smith said the committee unanimously decided such an extraordinary measure was required after MacPherson again refused to answer on the basis it would require “extensive contextual information”.
What nonsense. This sounds like they just want to spin it on their timetable. The request is a simple one – how many responses were there.
“If the chief statistician does not comply with a unanimous select committee to provide a simple answer by next Wednesday she’s effectively giving the fingers to Parliament.”
MacPherson was unavailable for an interview on Friday, but in a statement remained firm that it was not the appropriate time to release the number of partial responses to Census 2018.
“It is my hope that the committee will appreciate that I have made this determination after careful thought and application of statistical best practice.
“Without the appropriate context, these individual numbers would be open to misinterpretation,” MacPherson said.
As in people might conclude the census failed to get enough responses.
University of Otago professor Andrew Geddis said it was “very unusual” for such an order to be placed on state sector chief executive.
“I can’t remember a time a public servant has refused after being told they must answer.”
If a complaint was taken to the speaker or the House, Macpherson could be forced to apologise or be censured by the privileges committee.
“That would be a very major escalation. I would expect that the House treat it as contempt.”
The behaviour of Stats NZ in this regard adds to the shaken confidence in the census data. I’ve been forwarded on an e-mail from a Stats NZ staffer which is illuminating:
I work in Stats and I worked on Census in the field ops support. It was the biggest mess imaginable. I was meant to support field officers and was given no training at all on the IT systems used. I could write a book on how horrendous the whole process was. And at the end of Census – the Census general manager was promoted to the position of Deputy Government Statistician!!!
I doubt many MPs will have confidence in using this data to redraw parliamentary boundaries.
UPDATE: To clarify the Privileges Committee is the only committee that has the power to compel information in its own right. Other committees need to ask the Speaker to order the information, if it is not released to them.