Stats NZ won’t release iwi data, and that’s a problem

This week Statistics NZ released its update on last year’s disastrous census, also confirming that iwi data was too low to release at a time when Māori need it most.

Our census is the flagship of the official statistics system and is essential both to functions that underpin democracy and core government services. But we’ve known for almost a year that the most recent census was unlikely to provide reliable data for Māori. I talked about this in August last year, when Statistics NZ conceded the 2018 census response rate may be down by almost 5%.

Since then the extent of the census’ issues have become clearer. Earlier this month the government’s chief statistician, Liz MacPherson, was threatened with being held in contempt of Parliament for not providing figures on census completion rates to the Government Administration Select Committee. MacPherson did end up emailing MPs on the select committee, confirming that one in seven New Zealanders did not complete the survey.

On Monday, Statistics NZ issued an update on the 2018 census including the suspiciously positive sounding statement that ‘data on Māori ethnicity and Māori descent is likely to be more comprehensive than what was released from the 2013 Census’. Clearly less positive was that ‘Stats NZ will not release official statistical counts of iwi, because of the level of missing iwi affiliation data, and the lack of alternative government data sources to fill the gaps.’

Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori data sovereignty network, have been following the 2018 census closely, offering a critique of the official statistics system that has been designed without meaningful engagement from Māori. Yesterday they issued a statement that even the good news part of this statement isn’t all that it seems:

“Today’s announcement that Census 2018 counts for Māori ethnicity and Māori descent are ‘likely to be more comprehensive’ than those from the Census 2013 sounds promising. However, the Census 2013 had the lowest Māori coverage of any recent Census, so this improvement is off a low base. Moreover, the Census 2018 dataset was only achievable by drawing extensively on other government data after it became apparent that the Census enumeration was a failure.”

Stats NZ has yet to reveal what share of the Māori records in the census dataset had to be pulled in from government data sources outside of the census.

Te Mana Raraunga members bring their own insights to the disappointing news that Stats NZ has failed to deliver robust data for iwi. As Professor Tahu Kukutai, a demographer and member of Te Mana Raraunga, points out:

“Iwi affiliation is a crucial and enduring feature of what it means to be Māori in contemporary Aotearoa. However, because of poor decision-making by others, we effectively have an iwi data desert for the next five years… at precisely the time when iwi data are needed to face the challenges of demographic change, deepening inequality, future-proofing te reo Māori or advancing iwi economic aspirations.”

It’s not like Stats NZ doesn’t know the critical value of iwi data either. Even its own website says:

“… Māori have specific information needs that reflect te ao Māori and Māori aspirations for community and iwi development. These information needs are growing more urgent in post-settlement environments where Māori are furthering their own plans for social, cultural, environmental, and economic development.”

This all feels like insult to injury. A government department recognising that for Māori iwi data is crucial, yet also saying it won’t release official counts, all because of an entirely foreseeable issue.

As Professor Kukutai says: “This sorry and entirely avoidable situation has highlighted two key problems with official iwi data. One is the utter dependence on the census as the only source of reliable, population-level data which makes it highly vulnerable to system failures. The other is the lack of iwi control over iwi data.”

Professor Kukutai and researcher Dr Donna Cormack published a paper together recently on the potential implications of Census 2018 for Māori. I also talked with Dr Cormack, another member of Te Mana Raraunga, about the impacts of this failure by Stats NZ.

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“We have to understand the cumulative impacts that data inequity has for Māori communities. There is the original insult of the inequitable arrangements and outcomes in society, then there is the inequity created by having datasets that deliver less for Māori, that are less comprehensive, less timely, and less relevant. Or they aren’t available at all. This then creates further inequity because it diverts time, attention and resources away from doing work on our own priorities and aspirations, because instead we have to fix up problems with the data and find work arounds.”

The fundamental question for Stats NZ has to be how can Census 2023 right the wrongs of Census 2018 and deliver for Māori? The answer has to lie in application of Māori data sovereignty and Māori data governance and a move away from what Professor Kukutai calls “a top-down state-controlled process to one that is more inclusive and empowering of communities.”

You can also read more about indigenous data sovereignty and the work of Te Mana Raraunga on its website.


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