A case for and against

The Press - - Front Page -

To­mor­row is Cen­sus day. If you haven’t al­ready filled in your form on­line, or taken steps to do so with old-fash­ioned pen and pa­per, you should. A com­plete and ac­cu­rate snap­shot of the New Zealand pop­u­la­tion on March 6 is an es­sen­tial tool for the peo­ple who plan the pub­lic ser­vices you de­pend on.

If you do not be­lieve this, listen to the dis­trict health boards (DHBs). In the run-up to the na­tional pop­u­la­tion count, sev­eral DHBs have urged peo­ple to fill in their forms, or see their hos­pi­tals and other health ser­vices po­ten­tially lose mil­lions of dol­lars.

The rea­son is that DHB fund­ing is based on the pop­u­la­tion of the area each board cov­ers. Fund­ing de­ci­sions are also based on fac­tors such as the age and eth­nic­ity of peo­ple liv­ing in the area. The Min­istry of Health works off cen­sus data and al­lo­cates the Health budget ac­cord­ingly.

There is con­cern al­ready that a shift this year to on­line Cen­sus forms will lead to fewer peo­ple com­plet­ing the ex­er­cise, or that cer­tain groups (in­clud­ing the home­less, the el­derly and those who don’t have a com­puter) will be dis­ad­van­taged. It re­mains to be seen if that will be the case.

But if you can fill out the forms, you ought to. We ex­pect gov­ern­ment agen­cies and oth­ers to make sound, rea­soned de­ci­sions based on good in­for­ma­tion. And we ex­pect them to be spend­ing our bil­lions of tax­pay­ers’ money wisely. These things can­not hap­pen if the data is in­com­plete or missing.

For a case study in what hap­pens when coun­tries do not have use­ful cen­sus in­for­ma­tion, look at Canada. The com­pul­sory long-form cen­sus was abol­ished there in 2010, in favour of a vol­un­tary na­tional sur­vey. It was re­in­stated af­ter Justin Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment took power in 2015. Even though a com­mend­able 68 per cent of house­holds filled out the vol­un­tary sur­vey in 2011, com­pared with 94 per cent who filled out the previous com­pul­sory cen­sus, 1100 small towns and com­mu­ni­ties sim­ply dis­ap­peared off Canada’s sta­tis­ti­cal map.

This means plan­ners mak­ing de­ci­sions about ser­vices to meet the needs of those com­mu­ni­ties had noth­ing to go on. Health of­fi­cials re­ported hav­ing to rely on 10-year-old data, and de­cid­ing how to deal with child health is­sues when they didn’t even know how many chil­dren lived in their com­mu­ni­ties.

The vol­un­tary sur­vey also pro­duced results that were sim­ply wrong. It said that the largest group of new mi­grants to Canada came from the Philip­pines. Im­mi­gra­tion data showed more im­mi­grants came from China.

The gap in in­for­ma­tion col­lec­tion in Canada, and the frus­tra­tion from not hav­ing re­li­able data, yielded strong ar­gu­ments for the cen­sus. Cana­di­ans em­braced the next com­pul­sory cen­sus, in 2016, with en­thu­si­asm. It had a 98.5 per cent re­sponse rate – the high­est in mod­ern his­tory.

Some peo­ple ob­ject to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cen­sus. They worry about pri­vacy con­cerns, or that the data can be used by the Gov­ern­ment for ne­far­i­ous pur­poses. These wor­ries are gen­er­ally un­founded.

The es­sen­tial point, how­ever, is that the Cen­sus is com­pul­sory for valid rea­sons. As the Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence showed, a vol­un­tary sur­vey would be a waste of money.

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