Outgoing Stats NZ boss Liz MacPherson and State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes (Radio NZ, Charlie Dreaver)

The Bulletin: Census fallout won’t be solved easily

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Census problems will linger a long time, big tobacco tries to get into NZ Fashion Week, and farmer survey shows big concerns about climate change policy.

The government’s top statistician fell on her sword yesterday, to take responsibility for the botched 2018 census. Toby Manhire has written a cheat sheet to bring you fully up to speed on the resignation of Liz MacPherson, and the publication of the review into how and why the census went wrong. But the resignation won’t put an end to the problems created by the census, which could be far reaching.

The main problem was sort of the biggest thing that can go wrong with a census aiming to be comprehensive – not enough people were reached. The story of the ‘digital first’ approach resulting in a big drop in response rates was first broken by The Spinoff back in July last year. Since then there has been a steady drip of new details about exactly how bad it was, and who was most likely to be missed. Dr Polly Atatoa Carr from the University of Waikato told the Science Media Centre yesterday that with response rates of 68% for Māori and 65% for Pacific people, it “is likely to result in new inequities in the development and monitoring of our policy and programmes.” That will have huge funding implications for government services. She also noted that the other government data being used to plug gaps is collected for other purposes under other conditions, there will be “substantial inaccuracies.”

The Māori Council says that’s absolutely not good enough. Speaking to Checkpoint, their head Matthew Tukaki says it basically needs to be rerun, or some sort of Māori population census to be conducted. He’s deeply concerned that for some Māori communities (for example, those of the remote East Coast) will be consigned to invisibility. “It’s not just the census data where we’re falling behind the eight ball,” he argued. The report recommended that rather than a new census, Stats NZ would be better to hold the next one as scheduled in 2023, but with the problems fully fixed.

Politically, it has also been a horror event for Stats minister James Shaw. He genuinely wanted the portfolio when he first got it (joking that it’s the only portfolio that counts, think about it.) Now he’s having to defend his role in it all. One News reported his comments, which were that he was told that the census was basically ready to go when he got the job, and that problems weren’t brought up to him early enough. There have been plenty of arguments covered previously about whether the previous government put enough funding into the census preparations.

But the fallout will also affect one of the most important uses of census data – the drawing up of electoral boundaries. Stuff reports National have continued to oppose the use of 2018 data to redraw boundaries, preferring instead to continue to use the boundaries based on the 2013 census. It’s not clear what the political effects of that would be, and the concern is more around the politicisation of the process under which elections are contested.

Finally, there will be more esoteric concerns raised by the census that speak to how the public service interacts with the population. On resigning, Macpherson noted that elements of the digital approach would be worth keeping. But once again it has demonstrated that many people, particularly those in lower income areas, still need comprehensive, low technology options. It’s like when Murupara ground to a halt recently because the town’s cash machine was robbed. No amount of digital service provision will change the fact that many segments of the population are simply not online, and so digital solutions won’t work for them.


A global tobacco giant has tried to sidle their way into an association with NZ Fashion Week, reports Maria Slade for The Spinoff. Philip Morris is currently racing to get as many people vaping as possible, with declining rates of tobacco smoking. The move they tried here was an offer to designers to stage a show effectively for free, and while there wouldn’t be an overt association, those who were approached turned it down. Cigarette manufacturers used to be heavily involved with fashion, until tobacco sponsorship was banned in the 90s.


Climate change has become the top concern for farmers. Or rather, as Newshub reports, climate change policy from the government has become their top concern, according to a Federated Farmers survey. Looking through the full survey, it’s fascinating how frequently that came up as a concern relative to other listed issues like “environment”, “weather” and “water storage”, and there was no clear mention of drought. But long term, those could be the issues that cause farmers the biggest problems.


We could be about to see a new party get over the line for Electoral Commission registration. After a blaze of publicity earlier in the year, Vernon Tava’s Sustainable NZ party largely went quiet. But now Tava has told the AM Show that they’re close to the 500 financial members needed to contest the party vote, and have significant financial backing. If they can make it happen, both Sustainable NZ and TOP will make for a fascinating case study of whether there really is a so-called ‘blue-green’ constituency up for grabs.


This is a really insightful take on the question of money in local government elections. Writing for Newsroom, Peter McKenzie has tracked exactly where the donations that funded the last mayoral election came from – and by and large it was property developers, one of whom currently has a controversial development going through council. As with much of what gets written about election donation law, it’s all perfectly legal, but the questions that are raised are uncomfortable.


We’re almost certain to see more disasters like the Fox River dump breaking open. That’s the view of DOC director general Lou Sanson, who told One News that climate change makes them a lot more likely. The volunteer, DOC and NZDF cleanup operation has now come to an end, and work is ongoing at a ministerial level to get some movement from central government.


A challenge from a reader, based on yesterday’s perhaps slightly loose description of Huawei’s structure and ownership status. Nathan got in touch to share this academic paper on the matter, published earlier this year, which notes that there is significant doubt about the claim that it is entirely employee owned. They conclude based on what they can ascertain that it is in fact effectively a state owned company.


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Herbs in Mascot Studios, circa 1980/81. Left to right: Dilworth Karaka, Spencer Fusimalohi, Fred Faleauto, Phil Toms, Toni Fonoti. Image: supplied

Right now on The Spinoff: Emily Writes reports on hundreds of doctors expressing concern about a coroner’s recommendation that breastfeeding mothers should never drink alcohol. Teuila Fuatai writes about 50 years of engagement by the University of Otago with Māori. Megan Dunn reviews an art show about the environment that is big on charm and low on preaching. Leonie Hayden speaks to Tearepa Kahi, the maker of a documentary on iconic band Herbs. And distinguished and highbrow food editor Alice Neville reviews curry on a pizza.


How could the Official Information Act be fixed? That it has huge problems is almost entirely beyond the realm of controversy by now, and hundreds of submissions have been coming in to the justice minister as to what needs to change. Stuff’s Nikki Macdonald has taken the deepest of dives into those submissions, to get a sense of what people are suggesting. Here’s an excerpt from near the start that outlines the current state of play:

There are tales of government staff being told off for putting sensitive information in discoverable emails, instead of subverting the Official Information Act (OIA) by talking on the phone. There are accounts of ministerial staff trying to manipulate OIA responses.

And there are public servants spending hours wrangling requests for massive volumes of information that could never have been envisaged by an act as old as the personal computer.

Through it all there’s a feeling of battle fatigue on both sides, with talk of a “combative” process and one anonymous submitter saying the act condemns officials to “the misery and stress of perpetual, soul-wearying failure”.


A big boost for women’s cricket, with the T20 format being added to the Commonwealth Games from 2022. One News reports it’ll be added alongside beach volleyball and para-table tennis, and eight nations will be invited to send teams. It has been a good week generally for the game, with Newshub reporting that a new player agreement will significantly boost the earning potential for women cricketers.

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Finally, you don’t have to understand anything about gymnastics to know that Simone Biles is really, really good. She’s just performed some unprecedented feats at the US Championships, and rather than finding something to read, just have a watch of it. The skill is unfathomable.


From our partners: With several high profile government objectives in the spotlight, a single ministry could drive better outcomes across them all. Robyn Holdaway, senior policy advisor at Vector, makes the case for a Ministry for Energy.


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