Every Vote Counts: a Census for Posterity

Listener 3 March, 2001

Keywords Statistics

Brian Pink, the Government Statistician, says the population census to be taken next Tuesday (March 6) ‘is a celebration of the democratic process’. It is a sort of a vote, with everyone in the country – not just adults – required to be included on a census form. Unlike an election which involves just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote for some political party, a census involves a wide range of questions, each chosen for some practical social purpose. (They have to be, because there are always more questions than can be fitted on the form.) So you will be contributing a list of important social attributes, putting in a vote for your gender group, your age group where you were born, your ethnicity ….

Everyone’s ‘vote’ counts, for they are used for a whole range of activities from deciding the electoral districts to the planning of social facilities. It is easy to say ‘I dont matter’ but while statisticians are only interested in your social characteristics, which is why your name or address is not recorded in the computerised census records, the cluster of them is significant Since the planning involves the location of schools and hospitals it is important that everyone is there, even the newborn. It seems likely that about once a month there is a public policy decision which uses the census and materially influences the average reader’s life. One of the stupidest threats in 1996 was from a social group who told its members to boycott the census. Had they done so, the group would have not been counted and been ignored for a whole range of public policy purposes.

While this is the 31st New Zealand Census (the first was in 1851), there have been censuses stretching back almost 6000 years. In the past there has sometimes been a reluctance to participate because the results were used for levying taxation or for military conscription. Our tax system is not dependent on the census, even if the spending of the taxes is. And today’s census cannot used for conscription. When the government approached the Statistics New Zealand in the early 1960s for assistance to identify young men for a military call-up, they were told it was prevented by the law. Instead, the government went to employers and teaching institutions.

The law on official statistics is written very tightly because it is essential that the quality of the national data base is not compromised, and forms are filled with accuracy and confidence. As I said, your name and address is not fundamental but the quality and comprehensiveness of your answers are. Thus there are legal restrictions and practical procedures designed to ensure that each response is used only for the statistical purposes for which it is asked.

That is a good principle in any collection of statistics, but it led to a complication. What if privacy concerns led to some people not filling in their forms properly? On the other hand the individual records could be very useful for genealogical or historical research. Would you not like to be able to look up how your relatives responded to the 1901 census? (You cant, because the forms have been destroyed.) If you look through the questions, there was nothing in them that they would have minded their great-great-grandchildren knowing 100 years later.

I was on a consultative committee which thrashed the problem around. Even more compelling than the genealogists’ case was the experience of one of the committee’s historians Erik Olssen, professor of history at the University of Otago. He, his colleagues, and students have painstakingly studied the Dunedin suburb of Caversham in the period from 1880 to 1930, including using street directories to find out where people lived and moved to. It is a magnificent study of an early urban community, some of which is written up as ‘Building the New World’, one of the best history books of the last decade. If only they had access to the censuses of those times.

But the researchers’ ethical rule is that data may not be used for a purpose for which it is not collected. Eventually we found a way out. The very last question on your 2001 census form says ‘If you agree, the information you gave on this form, including your name and address, will be stored securely for 100 years and then anyone who wants to see it will be allowed to. Do you agree?’.

So you may opt for preserving your census record (and those of your children when you fill them in on their behalf). I hope you will think of your great-great-grand children, and of the historian successors to Erik Olssen, and tick a big YES – a vote for posterity.