The stats controversy

Radio NZ reports:

Specialists on statistics warn a proposed law change poses the threat of official data being corrupted by political meddling and unregulated sharing.

They are alarmed the new legislation will let the Government Statistician delegate their currently tightly-corralled powers to others, and that it fractures the longstanding constitutional divide between statistics and government policymaking.

“It is a sea-change,” said constitutional lawyer and former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Government agencies other than Stats NZ use statistics in policymaking, but at present don’t get to decide themselves what to collect and how.

Former chief statistician Len Cook has made submissions to select committee and written media commentary condemning the new bill, and said people in power knew the influence stats had.

The idea the powers could be “transferred in full to other people, with no controls, with no limits” was “unusual in the world” and posed risks, Cook said.

I agree with Len Cook that the powers should not be transferable.

In fact I think the importance of the independence of the Government Statistician is so high, that appointments to that role should not be made just by the Government of the Day (Cabinet has an effective veto), but requite the consent of the Leader of the Opposition also.

In the late 1980s, when inflation was running at around the rate it is now, the government wanted to raise the tax on tobacco – and approached him about it, Cook said.

“Michael Cullen as Associate Minister of Finance requested the government statistician to remove tobacco out of the CPI and the government statistician said, ‘I’m not going to do it’.

Excellent decision.

He knew then he had the legal backup to guard his independence, Cook said – and believes the new Data and Statistics Bill risks that.

“The moment you transfer the authority and all the powers of the government statistician to someone who is more directly connected to a minister, and themselves has a role in keeping ministers content, is a very different thing.”

The country’s longest-serving statistics minister – most recently in 2014, National’s Maurice Williamson – said no one would think multiple agencies printing money was a good idea, and the same applied to statistics.

Yep – one stats agency.

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