The Bulletin: Flashpoint looms for long-running census debacle

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Flashpoint looms for disastrous census, a deep dive on emissions from tourism, and minister promises hard look at unsafe landfills.

The debacle around the 2018 census is set for a major flashpoint this week, with parliament demanding data Stats NZ doesn’t yet want to provide. Radio NZ reports the chief statistician Liz McPherson faces committing contempt of parliament if she doesn’t release information about the response rate. She says it won’t be ready, and was planning on release it at the end of the month, on the grounds that if they’re released without proper context, they could be misinterpreted.

I say flashpoint, because it feels like the low rumble of the census disaster is coming to a crescendo. The response rate is drastically low, with an estimated 400,000 people not taking part – many of whom are understood to be Māori (though we don’t know exactly, which is sort of the point.) As the first census with an online model, it was always likely that there would be some problems, and at the time it was conducted, there was already disquiet that crucial information about the census hadn’t reached the public. But the scale of the problem appears to be growing, with fears about how many of the responses received were partial. It’s the worst turnout in 50 years, and the release of the data has been delayed multiple times.

That means that there will be trouble around how the results get used. National has already indicated they will strongly contest any moves to use this Census to redraw the electorate boundaries for the 2020 election based on this data. Government spending generally also gets allocated based on where the census data says people are. National’s Nick Smith indicated the party wanted a new Census to be carried out in 2021, on the grounds that better data will be needed for redrawing boundaries.

Politically, both recent governments deserve their share of the blame for what has happened. The conduct of the census and subsequent struggle to get results out belongs to Statistics minister James Shaw, as the one in office when it all took place. But as this excellent ODT feature outlines, the online model was pushed heavily by the last government. And much more pertinently, Stats NZ asked the last government for a $3 million contingency fund to cover the cost of anything going wrong. They got turned down, on top of previous directives to trim costs over time.

Finally, even though hundreds of thousands of people didn’t fill out the census, the number of people being taken to court remains in the dozens, reports Stuff. They’re mainly those who aggressively refused to take part. To think, if they really didn’t want to participate, they could have just gone under the radar and got themselves lost among the rest of the hundreds of thousands of others who didn’t fill it out.


We look all the time at the carbon emissions caused by activities like farming and mining, but almost never at those from tourism. Stuff’s Nikki Macdonald has taken a deep dive into the carbon impacts of the sector, and reports that there is one pretty much intractable problem – to get to New Zealand, you have to fly a long way. With offsetting emissions increasingly seen as a non-solution compared to not creating them in the first place, that makes NZ economically vulnerable if flying becomes untenable.


Conservation minister Eugenie Sage is diving into work around unsafe landfills around the country, reports Radio NZ. It follows the West Coast disaster, where a poor quality landfill was washed out in flooding, and rubbish ended up all the way down a river to the ocean. It shows how easily similar types of landfills could be exposed.

Meanwhile a business case is being put together for a plastic reprocessing facility in Feilding, reports the Manawatū Standard. It’s in response to both the growing fears around landfills, and the fact that huge volumes of plastic can no longer be exported to China. It’ll be fascinating to have a look at the business case when it is presented later in the year, with regards to how environmental externalities get treated and priced.


The government is being warned that gun manufacturers and users overseas are finding easy ways around bans similar to what is being proposed here. The discussion comes in this highly detailed story by the NZ Herald’s Jared Savage, which looks into how stricter gun laws have been circumvented overseas. Police minister Stuart Nash says the next phase of law changes, expected to begin in June, will future proof against future technological change.


Out of all the Kiwibuild homes so far, more than half were already being built when they became part of the scheme, reports Radio NZ. It raises questions about whether Kiwibuild is actually doing anything to add to the housing supply. Minister Phil Twyford says the goal is to get affordable homes built, and that is what is being done.


Concerns are being raised about procurement contracts for the APEC summit, reports Newsroom. The Auditor-General’s office says they’ve told MFAT to review all existing contracts, after the procurement of a consultant didn’t meet the expectations of good practice. The huge (and expensive) international summit is rapidly approaching, with a year’s worth of events taking place over 2021, which will ultimately cost the government about $330 million.


A new campaign is being launched to push for a capital gains tax, amid the wait for the government’s response to the Tax Working Group. Writing on The Spinoff, campaign organisers Louise Delany and Paul Barber say the majority of New Zealanders aren’t being heard in the debate, which they say is being dominated by wealthy property owners. They argue that the tax system is currently unbalanced and unfair, and their campaign is being supported by a range of organisations.


Te Papa is changing the iconic earthquake house, moving it to a new location with new video footage. Stuff reports it has been going for more than a million shakes, or since the museum was opened. A major reason for the change is to update understandings about earthquakes, which have developed in the intervening decades.


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Right now on The Spinoff: Susie Ferguson asks why so many women and girls are expected to simply put up with the pain of endometriosis. Esther Zhuang tells us what it was like to grow up Chinese in New Zealand, when she once wanted to try and leave her Chinese identity behind. Ashleigh Young reviews More of Us, a collection of poetry written by migrants and refugees. And Alex Casey meets Leilani Tominiko, aka Candy Lee, a pro wrestler currently coming up in the world, and raising awareness of trans identity in the process.


A godfather of modern tourism in Queenstown is horrified and disillusioned by the over-tourism and inequality in the town. Writing in Crux, pioneer Jon Dumble says the growth in tourism is dangerously unsustainable, both in a social and environmental sense. Many have said this, of course, but the mana of someone like Jon Dumble, who founded the Skyline Restaurant, gives the criticism a lot of weight. Here’s an excerpt:

We know that in NZ  it has overtaken dairy as the largest earner of overseas funds. Two old sayings are relevant – “It’s a bad idea to have all your eggs in one basket”, and “You are killing the  goose that lays the golden eggs. ” Queenstown’s sister city of Aspen tried to limit the area that could be developed, but the result was a great escalation in property values.  The workers in Aspen can’t afford to live there, so live down the road in Basalt. It is the same here  – many  workers here live in Kingston, Cromwell or Glenorchy.

Prof Herman Daly – former senior World Bank economist, said “both communism and capitalism have tried to do the impossible – grow forever.  Communism failed for various reasons and capitalism is failing now.”


Australia is currently in a golden era for women’s sport, argues this fascinating column in the Daily TelegraphAround the various codes, Jessica Halloran has declared the top five form athletes of the moment are all women, and for the sports on the list I follow it’s really easy to agree with that conclusion. With crowd numbers way up (seriously, check out how big a deal this year’s AFL Women’s Grand Final was, they got 53,000 in) it raises a lot of interesting questions about whether current levels of investment are high enough to really entrench the gains. There’s plenty in there for NZ sports administrators to think about too.

And here’s a nice story from Mountain Scene about the rebirth of home club rugby in Arrowtown. The Premier team for the town have just played their first proper home game in three years, at a revamped park and clubrooms that are going to be jointly used by a bunch of community groups. It has come just in time for the club’s 30 year Jubilee too, which will take place over Easter weekend, and at which they’ll defend Central Otago club rugby’s coveted White Horse Cup.

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