Minister declares Census a 'success' despite return estimates falling short of target

5:51 pm on 29 June 2023
Labour Ministers are sworn in by the Governor-General in a ceremony at Government House.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Statistics Minister Deborah Russell has told Parliament she considers this year's Census a success despite appearing to fall short of the 90 percent return target.

The return period for the final census forms is set to end at 5pm on Friday, and Russell on Thursday said forms for more than 4.5 million people had so far been returned.

It indicated an estimated individual return rate of 89 percent nationally, with rates of 74 percent and 79 percent for Māori and Pacific people respectively.

She said that compared to the 2018 raw-return completion rate of about 83.3 percent, 67.4 percent for Māori and 63.7 for Pacific people.

The 2018 census was plagued by difficulties however, with returns the lowest in 50 years - down from 94.5 percent in 2013 - and the Māori and Pacific rates were considered "unacceptably low" even after being boosted by a new method integrating additional data.

That same method of including "administrative" data - collected by government agencies and other organisations as part of their usual operations - will be used again this year. Stats NZ says the methodology is however different because it is designed with the inclusion of such data in mind, rather than having it added retrospectively.

Russell was optimistic about the numbers for this year, saying it was a big improvement.

"Obviously we'd like to have more in, but with that kind of return rate by the time we get the administrative data as well, we'll get to a coverage rate of about 97, 98 percent," she said.

"We're going to have much better quality data this time around. Particularly by the time we combine it with administrative data we're going to get a really really good population headcount."

"The return rate for Māori is significantly increased from last time around."

She said the target was for 98 percent coverage, but the final numbers would not be clear until after the post-enumeration survey to be delivered in December next year.

Russell had in March said she would "absolutely" stake her job on reaching the 90 percent target, but resigning if that was not hit would be a "step too far".

She was challenged over that by ACT's Statistics Spokesperson Damien Smith during Question Time on Thursday, who asked if she accepted she had "ultimate responsibility for the Census failing to meet its targets, completion rate" and would resign.

ACT MP Damien Smith in select committee

ACT MP Damien Smith Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Russell said she was confident the five-yearly survey would give government, iwi and hapū, community groups and businesses good information to plan for the future.

"The Census has in fact succeeded, we're sitting on an 89 percent return rate at the moment, and in fact there has been particular success with increasing the rate of return from our Māori and Pasifika populations," she said.

The Census data is expected to start being released from May 2024.

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