Census taking stock of NZ's changing society

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 04/03/2013
Census collector Philomena Nziramasanga delivers forms to an address in Newtown.
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ
HOME DELIVERY: Census collector Philomena Nziramasanga delivers forms to an address in Newtown.

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The 2013 census isn't a marketing survey for new toothpaste. You can't politely decline and close the door.

Anyone who doesn't fill out the individual and dwelling forms for Census Day, Tuesday March 5, is breaking the law.

You can be convicted and fined $500, with a further $20 accruing for every subsequent day you fail to fill out the form.

After the 2006 Census, Statistics New Zealand took 70 people to court for failing to fill out their forms. It is taken seriously.

By tomorrow, 7000 census workers will have visited 1.8 million homes and handed out 6.4 million forms.

And it is not just homes. Even if you are just passing through, you are still legally required to take part in the census if you are in New Zealand at midnight on Tuesday. Collectors are handing out forms for passengers on three cruise ships that will be docked in New Zealand. Airports, hotels, hospitals and even people living on the street are being deliberately targeted to build a complete snapshot of New Zealand frozen in time.

Once the forms are collected and numbers crunched, the whole process will cost New Zealand taxpayers $72 million.

It is a lot of effort and money. Is is really worth it and does the Government really need to know so much about us?

Census 2013 general manager Carol Slappendel says it does and, even with the hefty price tag, the census is incredibly good bang for the public's buck. It is not a survey, it is a stocktake, showing us where New Zealand is and how it has changed.

It will be used as a basis to allocate billions of dollars in government spending. It is critical to deciding how many electorates we need and where the boundaries should be drawn. It can help measure all sorts of social ills, including overcrowding and homelessness.

But despite the importance of the information, plenty of people still don't take part.

Last census, 220,000 people, 5 per cent of the population, did not return an individual form. Through dwelling forms, some were partially captured but an estimated 88,000 people still went missing. Non-people, according to the census.

Ms Slappendel says that is a pretty good return rate by international standards.

Asian ethnicities feature the most prominently among the missing people, with language barriers sometimes making them difficult to reach. However, there is a small group who do object; claiming it is none of the Government's business whether they live in a tent or have trouble lifting heavy objects (two possible responses to census questions).

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Questions about income often drew the most hostility, Ms Slappendel said. "They think it's intrusive. But that feeds into the decile system which is used to allocate funding to schools. Not filling it in means schools might miss out on funding they need."

Other sensitive questions, such as how many "alive" babies someone has had, are left deliberately optional.

"A lot of people don't want to answer that one and we understand that."

Ms Slappendel say it is important to remember the Government isn't really interested in your information about you, they are interested in everyone's information clumped together.

When the results start stacking up in December, it will build a picture of a changing society.

"Looking at how much we have changed in seven years is going to be fascinating. It will paint a really rich picture of our country."

'NO RELIGION' BUT SPIRITUAL BELIEFS

Atheism is tipped to continue its rise in this year's census results, while those identifying as Christian will fall below 50 per cent.

In the 2006 census, just over two million people, or 55.6 per cent of those answering the religious affiliation question, identified with a Christian religion. In the 2001 census, the figure was 60.6 per cent.

Those ticking "no religion" rose from 29 per cent in 2001 to 34.7 per cent.

Victoria University religious studies teaching fellow Will Hoverd said he expected the "nones" to rise to about 40 per cent, and predicted a drop to between 45 per cent and 50 per cent identifying as Christian.

Dr Hoverd is among those conducting research into 6000 people, entitled the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, which began in 2009.

The research suggests half of those ticking "no religion" are not atheist, and three-quarters of them believe in a god or spiritual life force. "What we're finding is a demographic shift away from organised religion."

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR CENSUS DETAILS? A FEW TWEAKS

The people collecting your information are sworn to secrecy and Statistics New Zealand will keep it confidential.

If you have not filled out your census online, a collector will pick it up at your home within 12 days of census day, which is tomorrow.

The forms will be transported to a massive secure warehouse in Auckland, where every one will be scanned over three months. Once scanned, they will be destroyed.

The digital information - totalling about 1.25 terabytes - is then checked for errors and quality, a process that takes five months.

After being processed, a digital copy of every census form is stored by Statistics New Zealand for the next century.

Even in the year 2113, Statistics New Zealand will not be allowed to give out personal census details from 2013.

There are no new questions in this census but there are a few tweaks.

Scotland has been dropped as a "country of birth" option, and replaced by India. You can still tick "other" and write any country you like.

The question about health problems has been expanded, with the census giving more specific options including trouble concentrating, lifting and other difficulties.

Census 2013 general manager Carol Slappendel said there had been increasing calls to add a sexual orientation question. However, adding even one question was a big undertaking, requiring a rebalancing of the whole survey.

That question could also be sensitive for some. There needed to be clear need for private information before it was requested. "It's something we will look at next time."

ORDEALS OF A CENSUS TAKER

John – not his real name – says many people assume he is selling something.

"It is usually a bit of suspicion. They say, ‘I'm not really interested', or ‘Whatever you're selling, I'm not interested'. " However, once they realise its the census many, particularly younger people, become incredibly enthusiastic. "Some start shrieking with excitement."

Dogs are often problematic, particularly small yapping ones, and owners can be worryingly slow to call them off. On the rare occasion, a collector is treated more like a helping hand. "I offered to take up one woman's groceries and then she tried to get me to help her with another load."

- The Dominion Post

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