sign up log in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

Government cancels 2011 Census after quake, but will pay 7,000 workers

Government cancels 2011 Census after quake, but will pay 7,000 workers

Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson has announced the cancellation of the 2011 census due to be taken on March 8.

He told a news conference that it was not clear when it would be held again, but it would not be in 2011. Government Statistician Geoff Bascand said there would need to be an amendment of the Statistics Act 1975 in order for a census to not be held this year (see further comments on this below).

The quake would affect Statistics New Zealand's ability to safely and accurately complete the census, Williamson said.

"The Canterbury earthquake has also caused much displacement with many families forced to leave their homes and the region, and so there would be subsequent distortion to the data collected," he said.

"So to expect census to go ahead under such circumstances is not only unfair to the people of Canterbury, it’s also unwise in terms of the need for accurate data to be gathered from the census, so the census this year will not go ahead."

Government Statistician Geoff Bascand said the 7,000 temporary workers employed to do the census would likely be paid, although they had yet to properly look at contractural obligations.

Statistics New Zealand's Christchurch offices and computer systems had been damaged in the quake, Bascand said.

Late on Thursday Bascand advised the government he could not successfully conduct a census for March 8.

“There has been major disruption to Statistics New Zealand’s operations and to staff in the Christchurch area, where the bulk of our census operations are led and conducted from," he said.

Cost unknown

The census cost NZ$90 million over the five year period, Bascand said.

“Remember that’s for the five years,” Williamson added.

“There’s a lot of gearing up, there’s a lot of computer systems that need to be put in place, there’s a lot of publications and promotional data, then there’s a lot of payment of the people that go out and do the street work. So it’s not just a payment of NZ$90 million in one year, it’s over the five years of the cycle,” Williamson said.

The cost of not holding the census depended on decisions on whether it would be conducted at a future time, Bascand said.

"All of that’s to be determined. There will be some elements of the census operations we won’t need to proceed with this time, but then there are also a lot of commitments and a lot of endeavours that we have to wind down," he said.

Stats NZ had already spent NZ$42 million on the current census. On the remaining NZ$48 million, Bascand said it would have to be determined what the Department’s contractual obligations were, and what could and could not be curtailed or met.

7,000 collecters

Stats NZ had contracted 7,000 census collectors around the country who were being informed their services would not be needed. Asked whether they would be paid, Bascand answered, “We will be meeting all of our contractual obligations”.

“We’re working through all of those details with them at this point,” he said.

Pressed, Bascand said Stats NZ “expect that they will get paid, according to the contractual obligations with them".


Stats NZ had two offices in Christchurch, one of which was in the cordoned-off area and severely damaged. The census building was in the Ricarton area. It was structurally alright, but had suffered significant damage internally, Bascand said.

Computer systems were damaged, although there had not yet been a proper assessment, he said.

All Stats NZ regular employees were physically alright, although Bascand said he could not vouch for all of the temporary census collection staff, which was another reason why the March 8 date could not be met.


The census data was a very crucial part of the total information set the country had for planning and decision making, such as allocation of health spending, Bascand said.

Emergency services used it in planning and for their manning and location of sites.

“I know the fire service use it extensively for where elderly people are located, for example,” Bascand said.

Census data also affected electoral boundaries, although the coming election on November 26 would not be affected.

“The immediate implication is the existing information will continue to be used longer and will date, and over time will become somewhat less accurate, which is why we have the provision for a five yearly census. But we have the existing information, it’s just that it won’t be quite as good over time."

Stats NZ had considered "very thoroughly" holding the census in the rest of the country then later on in Christchurch, Bascand said.

"The main reason we can’t do that a ver high proportion of all the people involved in running or planning the census, and dealing with the field operations, are themselves in the Christchurch area. They are affected and are unable to provide the support and assistance we need to run it," he said.

Williamson said another reason was population numbers in places outside Canterbury were being distorted “quite badly” by people moving out of Canterbury.

“Nick Smith told me a number of people were moving into Nelson as we speak. They will not be permanent dwellers, but of course on the eight of March that’s what they would be recording, so the actual data you would get would be inconsistent,” he said.

Other figures set to be released

Asked whether the damage to Stats NZ buildings and systems might impact on the release of GDP figures in late March, Bascand said the Department would asses and update each week what implications there would be for releases in the subsequent week.


Meanwhile, the Statistics Act 1975 (section 23) requires a census to be carried out every five years from 1976. Asked about the legality of cancelling the census this year, Bascand put out this release:

I have been asked whether Statistics New Zealand needs a law change to avoid breaking the law by not holding the census on March 8.

Under the Statistics Act 1975, we must hold a census some time in 2011.

As March 8 had been the date decided on, and a proclamation issued by the Governor-General, he will be asked to issue a revocation. The Governor-General was told by the Minister of Statistics before the announcement that the census will not go ahead on that day. The revocation process is underway and will be completed before 8 March.

Because the Statistics Act 1975 requires a census to be held every five years, the Act will need to be amended. To ensure Statistics New Zealand is not in breach of the Act this amendment will need to be in force before the end of 2011.

Statistics NZ is getting advice from Crown Law on the most appropriate legislative or regulatory process to make the required change.

Here is a release from Williamson's office:

Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson and Government Statistician Geoff Bascand today announced the 8 March 2011 Census will not be held.

Mr Williamson said Mr Bascand had advised him the census could not be successfully completed because of the recent Canterbury earthquake.

The decision has been made after extensive consultation.

“This is not the time to go door to door asking New Zealanders for information when they’re dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake,” Mr Williamson said.

“It’s unthinkable that we would ask this of people. It would be an unfair burden and distraction at a time when they are grieving.”

There has been extensive damage to Statistics New Zealand buildings with significant impacts on census staff.

Mr Bascand said he acknowledges the decision will have consequences for people who use the census data in their work.

“We will now investigate the feasibility of alternative options,” Mr Bascand said.

(Updates with legal implications, broader implications, more comments from Bascand)

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


NoRightTurn thinks this is potentially unlawful under s23 of the Stats Act 1975

23 Census of population and dwellings

(1) The census of population and dwellings of New Zealand shall be taken by the Department in the year 1976 and in every fifth year thereafter.

However, I (Alex) would say if you're looking at the legislation, possibly s14(h) on duties of Govt Statistician may help overide this:   (h) to make, after consultation with an appropriate officer of any other Government Department concerned, a report to the Minister on the need for the continuance or discontinuance or the variation of any current collections of official statistics   From :

This morning, in response to the latest Christchurch earthquake, the government cancelled the census. According to Patrick Gower, they repeatedly refused to give any commitment on when it would be run.

While I'm sure its a reasonable response in the situation, it is also clearly unlawful. Section 23 (1) of the Statistics Act 1976 is very clear:

The census of population and dwellings of New Zealand shall be taken by the Department in the year 1976 and in every fifth year thereafter.

While there's no criminal penalty for failing to do so, its as binding on the government as the requirement to hold elections every three years.

Hopefully, the cancellation will merely be a delay, and we'll be filling out our forms later in the year. If not, then the government will have to amend the law. The proper way of doing this is of course through Parliament. It would be one of the few cases where extraordinary urgency was justified, and I have no doubt such an amendment would pass unanimously.


UPDATE on legality in story. Needs to be an amendment to the Stats Act