Census day

It is census day.  I’d probably be filling in my census forms now, except that they haven’t yet arrived.  We wanted paper forms, and I rang to request them within minutes of the initial SNZ letter arriving, with the access codes.  That was 10 days ago now.  So I’m less than impressed.  Doubly so as one of my kids is off at a school camp, and whereas I’d planned to fill out most of her form for her and send it along with her, since the forms haven’t arrived some teacher will presumably be overseeing her completion of the form, including a bunch of quite sensitive information that is simply none of the teacher’s business.

There is an article in the Dominion-Post this morning (“An intrusive, insulting exercise”)  from a journalist attacking the very existence of the census.  I’m torn.  I’m a keen user of some census data.  But I can’t help wondering what business it is of the state to coerce –  under direct threat of prosecution –  much of this information out of people.  As the journalist notes, threats to government data security have become more real.  And I also wonder whether Statistics New Zealand is not increasingly an instrument of a socio-political agenda (note the several pages of defensiveness about the absence of “gender identity” questions – this time).    Glancing through the questions, I’m also struck by the imprecision of several of them (eg under “Which country were you born in?” the third option is “England”, which is barely more of a country than, say, Canterbury or Otago are –  the latter two had their own parliaments rather more recently (1876) than England did (1707?).

The ethnicity question has been in the media in the last few days, with some  people bothered that “Pakeha” isn’t an option.  I guess they have a point.  But what bothered me was something else. Here is the question.


How many Niueans are there in the entire world?   Apparently about 25000.  At the last census there were more than 200000 people in New Zealand born in “England” –  plus others who probably identify as English.   And yet SNZ don’t even list it as one their top 8 options.  It would be interesting to understand why.  I’d probably normally tick the form as “NZ European”, but I think that (when the forms finally arrive) this time I might write down English, Scottish, Northern Irish, and perhaps British as well.  Since SNZ tell us ethnicity is, on their reckoning, self-perceived, the answers won’t (can’t really?) be wrong –  and those places are where my ancestors come from.

There are questions that leave one wondering about the reliability of the results of the census.  Here is a language question


On a form in English, they feel the need to remind us to remember to mark English if we can have a conversation in English?.  Quite how thick do they think respondents are that they need to talk down to us thus?   (And why is it any business of the government whether someone can hold a conversation in, say, Pukapukan or Polish? –  English, Maori, and Sign Language might, arguably, be a different matter.)

Then there is the religion question.


I consistently refuse to answer this question, not because I’m ashamed of my faith – Christian – but because it is the one question I’m lawfully allowed to refuse to answer.   The government and SNZ attempt to market the census on the basis of all the important public policy/spending choices it will inform, but it isn’t clear what decisions they think they will be making on the basis of individual’s declared religion (or lack of it).   And then there is the picky point: few Presbyterians will think of “Presbyterian” as a religion, but as a denomination within Christianity.

And then there is the question that probably bothers me most.


Quite what business is any of this to the government?  Frankly, if I had difficulty washing or dressing, I’d rather take the risk of being prosecuted (or perhaps even lie) than face the humiliation/embarrassment (as many will regard it) of writing that down on some government official’s form.

There are the questions that look like some activist’s request


What marks out cigarettes, in the minds of the bureaucrats who put this together, from pipes or cigars?  What business is it of the government’s.    And if cigarettes, what about alcohol, drugs, or other things people might think of as social vices –  “have you ever requested a single-use plastic bag?” for example.  Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t encourage them.

And, to the very end, the worthy social agenda continues.  The form ends –  the sample on-line firm, not yet having got my forms –  thus.


Actually, if there are blank unused forms, I’d prefer to rip them up, drop in the rubbish bin and see them off to the landfill.  But quite what I do with my rubbish shouldn’t really be any concern of Statistics New Zealand.

For much of the sort of information in the questions I’ve highlighted, it is hard to see a legitimate public policy interest in the information (coerced as you’ll recall) and also hard not to think that to the extent that there is interest in the issues in some quarters, reasonable steers could not be obtained much more cheaply, and non-coercively, through the use of well-designed voluntary surveys, undertaken at the expense of those interested in the data, and without the privacy concerns regarding the provision of so much joined-up data in one place to public servants.


31 thoughts on “Census day

  1. Filled mine in last night and surprisingly it left me less grumpy than you. I filled in for four of the family but had to leave it to two of them because I did not know the answers and it is intrusive to ask adults.

    Upon arrival in NZ the absence of an obsession with class pleased me until I realised there was an equivalent obsession with ethnicity. It infuriated me when registering our son at school we had to choose whether he was his mother’s or his father’s ethnicity (that has improved) and when buying a 10 for the price of 9 swimming pool pass Auckland council were worried about my ethnicity but didn’t ask if I could swim or wish to use the dive pool (that form has improved too). Now the ethnic question amuses me.
    I have a Maori friend who always puts down European and a South African friend who always puts down Maori. I do not lie but I know that what they want to ask what do I look like (elderly rather pink guy) but they are too scared to ask. NZ establishment has backed itself into a corner with ‘ethnicity is what you identify with’. So I consider whether the black American founders of Jazz and Blues are the people I most identify with; they certainly are my idols. On the other hand don’t I strongly identify with my wife and her family – I mean I have lived for the last 25 years surrounded by a diverse Melanesian culture. The simple test of ‘who do you support at sport’ makes my answer Papua New Guinea for almost all sports but that is not an ethnicity. My ethnicity is private but when I filled in my wife’s ethnicity and languages I could amuse myself by being totally honest – with 817 languages in PNG I suspect two or three of her languages may be unique in the NZ census.

    There is a simple criteria for asking questions: will we act differently depending on the answer? If not do not ask.


    • With the exception of the “are you able to wash and dress yourself” question, which I regard as shamefully intrusive, I’d probably have just gone and along and filled in the forms happily, if only they had been here. Every census for decades, SNZ has managed to have the forms delivered a week or so before the date.

      ONe of US-born kids wanted to fill in “American” for “ethnicity” – despite both parents being NZ born, and the child having lived in the US for less than 2 years – but if self-identification is the route SNZ want to go I think I’ll probably let them.


      • Yes, we have the passports to prove it (and then impending responsibility to sign up for the register that would underpin any future US consciption), but the census question isn’t about nationality – which might be interesting in itself (dual citizenship etc), and arguably more policy relevant than some other questions – but about “ethnic groups”. If there even is a United States “ethnic group” – whatever that might mean – only in the mad self-identification world of SNZ are my NZ-raised cricket and rugby following kids of it.


  2. With Brexit, the English do not necessarily associate themselves as European. They might as well have put down White New Zealanders. Pakeha? I thought that meant White Pig or White Maggot in Maori? In Chinese the name is Kwai Lo(White devil). Usually it would be derogatory rather than terms of endearment especially after being wiped out in the NZ land wars.


    • In using the word “Pakeha”, I refer to those things that relate to New Zealand but which are not specifically Maori or Pacific Island in character. I refer, in other words, to mainstream New Zealand culture—which is not unaffected by “things Maori”; but which is not in itself Maori. And I prefer to use the term Pakeha because it is positive (as opposed to “non-Maori”); because it is an indigenous New Zealand expression; and because the words “European” or “Caucasian” are no longer accurate or appropriate (and the word Caucasian never was).

      Pakeha is not a pejorative expression. It does not mean “long pig”, “white flea”, “turnip”, or “bugger ya” — all of which have been cited as alleged meanings by those who find the term distasteful. It almost certainly comes from the expression Pakepakeha, a reference to the white complexion of the earliest non-Maori who stepped ashore here, whose main visible distinguishing feature was that their skin was paler than that of Maori.

      Allegiance to One’s Origins:
      The Consequences of Belief
      Michael King, Historian
      A paper delivered to the Sea of Faith Network (NZ) Conference
      “Beyond Belief—Putting Faith Into Practice”
      Havelock North, 8 October 2000


      • This is written by a historian trying to justify a term in the year 2000 when everyone has decided to be all lovey dovey. The Pakeha term was used at the very start of conquest under a harsh and brutal confrontational environment. You can virtually guarantee it was never originally intended as a word of respect and honour.


  3. Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    Excellent points, plus totally agree with your first commentator, NZ is ethnicity obsessed to a ridiculous extent, rather like Nazi Germany with focus on blood %


    • See https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27118 for a short description of Social Identity. Two quotes from it:
      “”… social identities can change, and as they do the logic of who is seen as ‘one of us’ changes too. “”
      “” All it took was the creation of a meaningless boundary to create an ingroup, an outgroup, and the conditions for favoritism and conflict. “”

      This I can understand. I used to be “British” and now I am “Kiwi”; in neither case did I agree with everything happening in my group but it was my identity. My deliberate effort to sabotage all bureaucratic ethnic identification is related to the second quote. Clearly in common usage there are many ethnic groups within the borders of NZ and we can enjoy their food, music, dance and traditional clothing but emphasis on the ethnic group leaves us open to conflict between groups and also opens us up to outsiders such as the CCP to believe they have a moral right to interfere.
      So let us emphasize being New Zealanders – a very varied group but with one land, one government, one passport, one legal system, one health service, one collection of congested roads, one team to support at the Olympics, one welfare state and one IRD.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Essentially I agree, by ethnicity I identify, god awful phrase, as English, but after 30 plus years I am Kiwi, not Pakeha or Anglo Kiwi, but Kiwi and proud of that.
        As for English like so many I am a blend of English, Irish and French bloodlines, but that is essentially irrelevant


  4. It was indeed the Nazis who pioneered the use of the census to collect information on “racial groups”. So the questions on ethnicity, religion and disabilities (recalling the Nazis’ “euthanasia” programme for “useless mouths”) give me great unease. This is probably the result of reading William L Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school. It seems to be a feature of the modern Left to want to single out and discriminate on the basis of these factors. Do they realize they are using concepts and methods developed in Hitler’s Germany that were employed for the most evil and depraved purposes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had heard similar; that Nazis used data from old school records collected innocently by German house wives decades earlier. And the recent Rohingya crisis had the government using census data from the 50’s and similar data underlay the Rwandan genocide identifying Hutu from Tutsi where the term Tutsi had been defined by the Belgium colonial government census as ‘owning a cow’. Meanwhile the breakup of Yugoslavia with its ethnic cleansing ignored the majority of the inhabitants of Bosnia who had recorded ‘Yugoslav’ as their ethnic identity in the previous census.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Phil Tywford and Grant Robertson has certainly used the same Nazi propaganda trying to single out one group as the reason for the housing crises, property investors and landbankers. Like the Nazis, they brand property investors and landbankers as making unfair and exorbitant profits at the expense of the younger generation.

      Phil Twyford also indicated in his Nazi style propaganda with the intent to abuse the Public Works Act to label and brand and to undertake compulsory acquisition of land from the so called landbankers. Label, seek public support and then compulsory seizure preferably with low or no compensation from the evil landbankers is his catchcry. It is an evil act to make a profit from land at the expense of the young people of New Zealand.


  5. Was living in Australia at the time of their 2011 census. They delivered the form with the code printed on it. Said if you prefer you can do it online and throw away the form. Did exactly that. They knew I had done it and didn’t come knocking on my door to pick up the form

    Here is the Statistics NZ leadership detailing their length of service and experience
    Shake you head in wonderment

    The talk-back airwaves have been running red-hot on this lot. One of them comes from Australian Bureau Statistics. You think one of them would had the smarts to pick up the phone and ask “how did you do it” – No, gotta do it our own way. Number 8½ you know. We’re too smart

    Bit like APRA – we don’t need your help – We’ll do it our own way. Why would we outsource it to you

    Same is going to happen with immigration statistics – you can just sense it.

    My partner is “Australian” and there is no recognition of Australians – indigenous or not – I’m going to lie on my form – haven’t decided yet – Inuit, Metis or Eskimo


    • Australian is an interesting one.

      You could have

      1. White Australian
      2. Aboriginal Australian and wow there are as many different aboriginal groups as there are letters in the alphabet. No wonder they never got themselves as organised as Maori.

      I guess asians are not considered Australians by Statistics NZ and can just fit into their respective ethnic groups.


  6. Getting farcical

    Last night on ZB Talk-back an elderly lady with a thick Glaswegian accent rang 0800-census to say she was living in a retirement village and none of the inmates had received their forms yet in spite of having rung and asked for same. Customer Service person who answered the phone with a distinct sub-continental accent asked if the caller was a regular resident – caller said no I’m an alien from another galaxy – what do you think I am


  7. What interests me is the way the Asia NZ Foundation is a government organisation and they do the polling on attitudes to immigration. They claim they are neutral. This is how public opinion is influenced. Likewise the HRC, various ethnic advocacy groups etc all opposed to the interests of a majority of NZrs who in 2000 had views inimical to increasing diversity [Parr 2000]. In 1987 the Labour Government set on “a large agenda for change in NZ. Based on the premise that diversity had been “of immense value in the past and would continue to be in the future”.


  8. I just filled out the form online. Disappointed in the way it is set up, it assumes everyone who lives in the same dwelling will fill out the census at the same time and place, which I was never going to do as I barely know the people I live with.

    The census is the only time I’m happy to answer an official form/person about ethnicity, maybe a doctor too, but they best have a good reason.


  9. I find some of your observations in this post quite curious Michael given your recent missives on the departure cards and your generally high use of publicly available data.

    With regards to your daughter if she is of an age to be using the internet regularly then the tech giants will already know more about her than the government could ever hope to know and if/when she takes out insurance of just about any kind then similarly more will be known by them than the state ever will and likewise for many other products that one might regard as essential to modern life.

    In this vein I had a conversation with a former ACT party leader as one libertarian to another at an event one evening where I put it to him that the information and control that the state exhibits over one’s life looks increasingly trivial compared to the level of information that many of the monolithic corporations that function as necessities in the minds of many hold. He disagreed with me but I believe that may have been because of a low level of comprehension regarding digital technology and its level of control over individuals in general more than anything else.

    To me the argument about the state or others having this information is moot when many give away much, much more so freely, regularly and perhaps unknowingly.


    • What I give away and what is taken are two very different things.

      Having collected for charity I am sympathetic to collectors for good causes but when the government takes my taxes for the same purpose I grumble. Our refugee policy is a great example – of course only our government can control it (even if only to issue the Visas) and I am sure I would donate to assist sponsoring refugees but I do not approve of the government being generous with my money with our political parties trying to prove they have a heart by expanding our quota but they will use my taxes to do it.


      • I think you would find what is given away and what is actually digested by (large) commercial operators does not overlap to much of a degree (i.e. informed consent versus implied consent). I have had the fun of running some of these applications on myself and needless to say I would never have a need to hire a private investigator should I ever feel the need to investigate myself!

        Ahhh you will say but this information is voluntarily proffered in an exchange for a good or service, very-well then but doesn’t the government also provide goods and services? Is it not unreasonable to expect the government to need some information to help it do so? Alternatively one could always renounce their citizenship and go off grid if they felt so strongly about it. Or perhaps more positively engage in political action to change the way that government operates and what types of goods and services it provides.

        As I say to me the problem is monolithic power structures voraciously collecting information and building something that feels rather Orwellian and whether they be public or private in this day and age all feels a bit like a moot point if the ultimate outcome of is control and coercion.


    • I’d largely echo Bob’s point about the distinction between coercion and voluntary disclosure.

      Having said that, I’m increasingly uneasy about the convergence between data private companies have and what the state is able to use (and about the state jamming together various databases it has because it is a near-monopoly provider of various services). At the extreme is China’s “social credit” scheme, which I can see coming – in attenuated form perhaps – to Western societies over time.

      There is a tension as to just how much information the state reasonably needs. I’d argue that immigration flows are such a big short-run influence on our economy that something like departure cards should be maintained. Whereas I can’t see any reason at all why I should be required to tell the state whether or not I could wash and dress myself. If I ever ask for state funding as a result of such limitations then disclosure is the quid pro quo then, but not otherwise. We allow people to opt out of answering questions about religion, and women to opt out of the question about how many children they’ve had, but have no choice but answer all sorts of others (serious and nonsensical). I really liked Eric Crampton’s trivialisation of the ethnicity question – apparently he wrote down “geek” and “economist”.

      I don’t claim to have found the right balance on these issues, but having all this coerced out of one helps make a keen user of data pause for thought.


  10. The ethnicity issue is one that has exerecised my mind since entering the UK in 2010 for an extended period. I got a letter published in The Times on my difficulties in deciding the colour of my skin and the country I came from (I was privately embarrassed for my fellow citizens of Pacifica origins). I have decided my ethnicity, based on the United Nations definition, is Pakeha, reinforced by having all my ancestors arriving here 1842-1888. My turangawaewae is here in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Here I stand.


    • Thanks. Some interesting material there, altho paras like this one (and those about mould)

      “Major change was made to questions on disability and activity limitations from the 2013 census. The aim of the questions was to compare levels of participation by disabled people in such things as employment and education with those of non-disabled people, to see if disabled people were achieving social inclusion.”

      just reinforce my sense about SNZ beings agents for particular agendas. And it still isn’t clear how the govt knowing whether I can wash or dress myself assists anyone, even in knowing if I were achieving this thing called “social inclusion”

      I’m now half-regretting not refusing to answer that questions and inviting them to prosecute me.


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