When the 2011 Census was cancelled just three days after Christchurch was hit by its most devastating earthquake, there was little demur. People accepted it would be insensitive to go door to door asking Cantabrians for information. Furthermore, a large part of the Census operation was run from Christchurch and it had been badly damaged in the quake. A short postponement was surely the right move ethically and practically.
Any consequences of this were rather skated over. Statistics New Zealand noted there would be a cost in information from the previous Census, five years earlier, having to be used longer and becoming less accurate over time. That, however, would be a relatively minor problem if the Census was held as soon as possible. A further motive for urgency was the fact that much of the preparatory work had been done before the cancellation. The longer the delay, the more expensive the Census would be because many of the costs would be reincurred.
Yet the Census will not be held until March 5 next year.
In the meantime, there is certainly a cost to the likes of Gladstone Primary School. When the Ministry of Education expressed concern at the likelihood of overcrowding at the Mt Albert school, its board of trustees had no reliable demographic data to call on. It, therefore, commissioned a research company to survey the households in its zone. Obviously, the money spent could have been far better used improving the lot of pupils.
Schools are far from the only institutions suffering from the lack of Census information. It also plays a large part in planning and decision-making in the allocation of health dollars. Emergency services, notably the Fire Service, also use it for planning, not least in the location of stations. In all sorts of fields, there is greater efficiency when up-to-date information ensures resources are dispatched to the right place at the right time.
It is understandable that the 2011 Census was cancelled. And that damage to Statistics NZ's operations in Christchurch meant there could not even be a Census excluding the quake-stricken city. But it is difficult to see why it has been postponed for two years. The Census costs almost $90 million; about $42 million had been spent before the quake struck. Much of that will have to be spent again. The Census should have been held a matter of months after the cancellation, not a matter of years.