In July it was revealed that the five-yearly New Zealand Census taken in March of this year had hit a serious glitch with as many one in 10 Kiwis not caught by this crucial national event.

The census is the most important exercise undertaken by Statistics New Zealand and affects a vast array of decisions around government expenditure on district health boards, schools, transport and matters like electoral boundaries which must, by law, be redrawn during this parliamentary term.

The shortfall in the census count is attributable to the former National Government's love affair with online contact with the public which itself was driven by cost saving.

What the Statistics Department has discovered is a fact well known to anyone who works with poor people.


Quite simply, for those living on low wages, a benefit or just superannuation, online access is an unlikely luxury.

If you are having difficulty paying your rent and putting healthy meals on the table, the roughly $60 a month it costs to have online access in your home is not going to be a top priority.

The uptake of food parcels reported by food banks around the country plus the growing number of emergency benefits issued to people who just can't make ends meet should have been a red flag to the CEO of the Statistics Department, Liz MacPherson, in her drive towards online collection of the census data but it wasn't.

So now we witness a formerly respected government department scrambling to pick up the pieces.

At first, we were told that the gaps could be "backfilled" with information from previous censuses and "other sources".

This was always going to be nonsense as I wrote in these pages in July.

The whole idea of a national census is to create an accurate snapshot of the country at a specific point in time.

You get one chance. If you blow that chances as Stats NZ did, you're better to run the whole thing again.

But now it gets worse.

Having now realised that it won't be able meet its third late release date deadline, the department has now set yet another "deadline" of August 2019.

The 2018 census is therefore already stale.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson would have wanted to incorporate census information into his annual budget for next year in huge variety of ways.

This obviously won't be possible.

Recently released documents show the problems go a lot further than missing hundreds of thousands of people.

It seems that the attempts to "back-fill" the missing information have generated "high risks" leading to "less than ideal" decisions.

Translating this bureaucratic gobbledygook means that attempts to fill the gaps caused by going online with insufficient old-style back-up has failed.

It all adds up to an industrial strength shambles and further problems seem to be bedevilling the process.

Two hundred records were somehow lost and Stats NZ, six months after census day, has yet to settle on exactly how to add in the supplementary data getting accessed to fill the yawning gaps.

Even the National Party statistics spokesman, Dr Jian Yang, whose party mandated the online approach has described Census 2018 as a "shambles".

With the repeated delays to the release date, we must be close to a point that the Electoral Boundaries Commission will not have the time to go through the statutory processes needed to produce a new set of electorate boundaries.

The growth and redistribution of the population requires electorate boundaries to be redrawn every second election and that procedure is already overdue.

The process entails close analysis of fresh census information which is used to produce draft electoral maps.

These draft maps are then published for consultation purposes and large numbers of representations come in as the political parties, local councils and dozens of interested parties make their opinions known.

It is only after this time-consuming but necessary process that final maps are produced, and the political parties can finally select their candidates.

In other words, thanks to this fiasco our democracy is on hold.

And it gets worse.

The 10 per cent undercount is an average and given the well-established fact that Māori disproportionately occupy the ranks of the low paid and "off line", the undercount of Māori will be more like twenty per cent.

As the census not only predicts the shape of electorates but also the number of seats according to a statutory formula it is quite possible that one or even two Māori electorates will disappear.

This grossly unfair and undemocratic outcome is not acceptable.

Message to Andrew Little - There's a bullet here to be bitten.

MPs must consider junking Census 2018 altogether and passing an Act of Parliament to validate the current electoral boundaries for another trimester.

That's shortly after some well-paid heads roll.

- Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.