James Shaw Greens co-leader and Minister for Statistics.
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James Shaw Greens co-leader and Minister for Statistics.

Is it “Trumpian” to dispute the veracity of the botched census statistics? That’s the question currently dominating the political debate following the release of the official report into how the 2018 government census operation went so badly.

Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges has slammed the handling of the census operation by Statistics New Zealand and Minister of Statistics, James Shaw. More controversially, he is disputing the usefulness of the census data that is about to be released. That’s because, instead of surveying all New Zealanders, or even “nearly all”, the census only had a response rate of 83.3 per cent, meaning that there are some major gaps in the original data. But Bridges’ criticisms have drawn accusations of Trump-like behaviour from Shaw and others on the political left.

The fierce political battle over the botched census really kicked off yesterday when Bridges went on RNZ’s Morning Report and pushed a hard line of accountability for the Government and James Shaw for the census debacle. You can listen to the five-minute interview here: Outgoing Stats NZ boss shouldn’t be scapegoat – Bridges.

In terms of challenging Shaw’s role in the census shambles, Bridges says in the interview that Shaw has to take more responsibility for the outcome: “He was asleep at the wheel. He expressed blind confidence when concerns were raised. To give you the contrast, Maurice Williamson as statistics minister in 2013 for that census had 18 meetings on the census six months prior. Shaw didn’t have a single one. He had meetings on other things, measurements of our feelings, wellbeing and the like, but not the core business of the census.”

Bridges’ RNZ interview is also reported here: Botched census: Statistics Minister asleep at the wheel, says Bridges. According to this, “Bridges said as a result he didn’t believe the data would be robust enough to help redraw electoral boundaries and said these should stay as they were for the time being. He said the 2013 census presented more reliable data.”

Furthermore, in the interview, Bridges questioned the wider credibility of data being produced by the department: “I worry more broadly in relation to Statistics New Zealand. Because we have seen in recent months, whether it’s GDP, whether it’s immigration, vast swings as we revisit data and chop and change them. It doesn’t do a lot for our confidence in statistics in New Zealand.”

Shaw has responded to this interview with alarm, suggesting that Bridges is playing dirty politics. In what has been termed a “blistering broadside” at the National leader, Shaw has responded by accusing him of Trump tactics, especially because Bridges is undermining public confidence in official government statistics – see today’s article by Craig McCulloch: Simon Bridges’ comment ‘a very bad turn for NZ politics’ – James Shaw.

Shaw has parodied Bridges’ position on Statistics NZ like this: “Oh, they made a mistake over here, therefore, I don’t trust anything that they’ve produced”, and Shaw has said this position “is, frankly, absurd”. Fuelling mistrust in the census results is a problem, Shaw says, because “He doesn’t really care what the collateral damage is along the way … and I don’t know how he expects to govern if he totally destroys public confidence in the basis of evidence-based decision making.”

Shaw accuses Bridges of adopting a populist approach: “The lessons of Trump, the lessons of Brexit, and the lessons of the Australian election seem to have gone to Simon Bridges’ head and this ‘burn-the-house-down’ in order to win approach… is a very, very bad turn for New Zealand politics.”

At the heart of the issue is whether the upcoming re-drawing of the electorate boundaries can take place, given the questions about the quality of the census data. According to the above RNZ article, Bridges said “he did not accept Stats NZ’s assurances that the figures used to determine electorate boundaries would be robust. Bridges says: “We’ve got significant numbers of New Zealanders – hundreds of thousands in fact – who weren’t counted. It seems to me on that basis, it would be hard to run new electoral boundaries.”

Shaw disputes that there are any problems with the data for determining any new electorate boundaries saying the quality of the census stats have been verified by “an independent data quality review panel… Experts from all over the country – including someone from the UK Statistical Office as well to provide that international view – and they have put the gold stamp on this… He can take it into a court of law if he likes, but he’s going to lose.”

Shaw is backed up by economist Brian Easton, who is quoted in the RNZ article saying “We haven’t actually seen the data, so we can’t jump to conclusions… What we’ve got is people who are uninformed who are panicking – and quite illegitimately. What they’ve got to do is wait and see what happens.” He adds, however, that “I respect Mr Bridges saying that if they don’t have the confidence in the data, then we should stay with the 2013 electoral boundaries.”

Easton is also quoted in a previous article by Craig McCulloch, in which he elaborates on his fear of a developing Trump-style atmosphere of distrust of authority and “facts” in New Zealand: “We’ve seen in America that people say anything that comes out of Washington is not true, and there is a danger that that sort of attitude could happen in New Zealand” – see: Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust.

The worry is that despite strong attempts by Statistics NZ to fix problems with census data quality, some in the public will doubt that the results and further census work can be trusted: “Statistics New Zealand has done some very high quality work. It has some really good statisticians, but the public may go, shall we say, to a Trumpian position of ‘we don’t trust them’.” Furthermore, “I expect during the 2023 Census that people will be saying, ‘we can’t trust the statistics department’. Trust is a hard thing to build up, easy to lose, and I’m afraid that’s what has happened.”

Another researcher, however, suggests that questions should definitely continue to be asked about the quality of the census data. According to the above article, Massey University’s Paul Spoonley believes that “some scepticism from the public and Opposition” is understandable. He says: “The way in which [the census] was carried out now opens it up for questioning by whoever … and I think they have every right to raise those questions. We should have good experts look at the data and make sure that it is okay”.

Shaw’s alarm with Bridges’ so-called Trumpian stance on statistics is shared by political commentator Chris Trotter, who says today that Bridges’ questioning of the census data is just the latest in a more populist approach taken by the National leader recently, seen in terms of his stance on Ihumātao and National’s aggressive social media advertising. This all shows, Trotter argues, that Bridges and National are emulating the likes of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Trump and the Brexiteers, and taking the “low road to power” – see: Simon Bridges leads National down into the dark.

Here’s his main point: “This is an especially dangerous game to play. From calling into question the reliability of official information it is but a short step to advancing the Trumpian claim that the public is being assailed by “fake news”, or, worse still, that the election is being rigged. That is no small matter. Once truth and propaganda become fused in the minds of one’s followers, debate and discussion become redundant. If one’s opponents are all outrageous liars, then engaging with them in any way is pointless.”

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis has a similar view, suggesting that we are headed for a Brexit or Trump-style environment if Bridges questions the stats too much – see: Let’s not turn an omnishambles into a clusterf*ck.

Here’s Geddis’ main worry: “when Statistics NZ assures us that this process will produce some (but not all) census data that is as good as (if not better than) that from previous censuses, why wouldn’t we believe this? Because if we’re not prepared to believe it, then we’re solely left with a world of ‘alternative facts’ and individual reckons in which there is no common basis for either agreement or dispute. The international news pages of our newspapers (ask your parents, kids) are giving us a good, real time look at how societies that make decisions based on such assumptions work out. They don’t look all that great to me. And it would be nice if we could avoid importing the worst of their mistakes to our shores.”

Geddis agrees that the census was a disaster, and suggests that Bridges might be right to go hard against Shaw in the search for accountability, but says the politician should pause before threatening long-held arrangements on electoral matters. He’s particularly unhappy with the idea that National might dispute or wreck the process by which electoral boundaries are reconsidered. He argues that Bridges is wrong that the census data isn’t good enough, and that he should trust Stats NZ and the various experts when they tell him this.

There are others who are also questioning the quality and use of census data, however. Today, The Press newspaper has an editorial that is probably as scathing as Bridges, describing the census process as “Bungled, botched or butchered” and criticising James Shaw as being “remarkably blase over the data collection failure” – see: Māori have been let down by census botch-up.

Although Shaw has tried to paint the results in a positive light, saying they constitute a “mixed bag”, the editorial stresses the problem: “The results were much worse than merely ‘mixed’ for Māori. The response from the Māori community was 68.2 per cent, which means almost a third of the Māori population missed out. That figure is 20 percentage points below the 2013 response. Responses were also much lower than targeted in Pasifika, Asian and younger communities.”

The editorial laments that for Maori, this poor-quality data will be an “impediment on self-determination and progress that will have an impact for up to a decade”. It points to sociologist and statistician Andrew Sporle calling it “an information shackle” on Māori, saying “especially as the census is the primary source of iwi numbers. Those iwi engaged in Treaty negotiations will be hit especially hard.”

Another social scientist, Polly Atatoa Carr, is quoted, saying the “most likely to be under-counted are those experiencing the worst outcomes in the context of a Government that has made a priority commitment to achieving equity and addressing wellbeing”.

So, how did Maori get so under-counted by Statistics NZ? According to Raniera Tau, the chair of Te Rūnanga Ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi, “They failed to do the job, I mean they didn’t listen, the big thing is they didn’t listen to Māori and now we find ourselves in this situation and it is going to take another three years until we find out exactly where we sit” – see Meriana Johnsen’s ‘They didn’t listen’ – Iwi leader on botched census.

Finally, for the best examinations of this week’s official report into the census debacle, see Thomas Manch’s Census 2018: Review shows you could almost count on census failure, and David Williams’ Pulling apart the butchered census.