The Wizard of Christchurch will likely perform a vanishing trick in a few weeks, perhaps by travelling off-shore - he once spent the night in a boat beyond New Zealand's 20-kilometre territorial limit - or maybe by presenting affidavits from followers who believe he "magically disappeared" for a night. It's his way of avoiding the legal requirement to fill out census forms.
The census on March 5 will provide us with an official count of how many people and dwellings there are in the country. A snapshot of the people and the places where we live.
It was to have been held early in March 2011 but was postponed after the Christchurch earthquake on February 22 that year. Around $65 million had been spent on training census staff, delivering census forms, and so on, but the costs of the postponement doubtless have been much greater. Government agencies have continued to make decisions and allocate billions of dollars of funding - for district health boards, schools and road funding priorities, the police, fire and other emergency services - based to some extent on data and decile rates that haven't been updated for seven years. Electoral boundaries are shaped by census results, too.
The longer New Zealand goes without a five-yearly census, accordingly, the greater is the prospect of public money being misdirected. Government agencies have other sources of information to guide them. The Ministry of Education allocates significant sums based on birth projections, for example. But a census generates the hard data that provide a vital reality check for projections.
Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson has said the Government is considering holding the census once every decade. Britain and the United States conduct their censuses every 10 years. But New Zealand has a mobile population. Between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, more than half of all New Zealanders had moved within the country. As some areas burgeon and others shrink, it is important scarce resources be directed to areas of need.
Whether a five-yearly paper-based census is the best way to collect vital demographic information is another matter. But the distribution and collection of census forms should not be scrapped if impaired information is the price we pay for cost savings.
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