A case for and against
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.