Scientists were very excited last week by the photograph of a black hole, so big and so far away as to be meaningless to most of us. Closer to home, we pondered a black hole of our own, in the form of last year's government census. Pity that the Minister of Statistics, James Shaw, couldn't muster a similar level of animation.

The best he could do was accuse National MP Nick Smith of skulduggery by "leaking" information that he would have us believe threatens to destroy civilisation, for a blatantly nefarious political motive, and defend the chief statistician's refusal to say how many people failed to complete the head count until the end of the month.

Mr Shaw apparently agrees that 'extended contextual information' is needed before this magical number is revealed. Dr Smith, he said, had disingenuously added the number of those who didn't go anywhere near the census to those who started but didn't finish it.

Dr Smith reckoned 700,000 people who were in this country on the night of the census weren't counted. Chief statistician Liz MacPherson hinted at 460,000. Either figure renders the census useless.


More useless in some places than others, one imagines. Certainly the failure rate in the Far North is likely to be significantly greater than in some areas. And that is a real worry.

Governments use census data to decide how and where it is going to spend our money. They go a long way to determining, for example, how the likes of the police, health and education will be funded, not to mention electoral boundaries. Population is fundamental to those decisions, and under-counting the population will have a real impact.

Failure to complete the census is nothing new. The Northland DHB spent the five years after the 2013 count complaining that it was being under-funded by tens of millions of dollars. Statisticians have always been aware that every last person will never be counted, and presumably allow for that. But last year's exercise was a shambles on a grand scale, to the point where some are calling for the 2023 census to be brought forward to 2020.

Officially the problem last year was the decision, made by the previous National-led Government, to invite us to complete the census online. That no doubt reveals a gross over-estimation of how many of us who have access to the internet, let alone the ability to use it. The real problem though was that bureaucrats made a complete pig's ear of a vitally important process.

The Northland Age pointed this out at the time, and was advised by Mr Shaw, in the House, not to believe everything it read on Twitter. Perhaps he needs reminding of just how badly his officials did their job.

The problem wasn't that great swathes of people couldn't or wouldn't be counted online, but that the department proved to be utterly incapable of catering for them. This newspaper talked to any number of people who had followed the proper process to request papers, so they could participate in the traditional way, and didn't get them.

It pointed out that the failure of the census to reach whole populations wasn't restricted to individuals in hard to reach places. The Whangārei suburb of Kamo, for instance, reportedly missed out en masse.

One might be able to forgive those who do not expect to find signs of intelligent life beyond the extremities of any given city's motorways to have under-estimated the potential reach of the internet, but their true failure was to massively under-resource those who were employed to effect Plan B by making contact with those wanting papers. This newspaper also talked to some of those who were employed to deliver and collect the forms, who said the terms of their contracts did not allow them to do that job with anything approaching a desirable level of efficiency.

If no one was at home they were to leave the forms in the letterbox. Not a good system. Nor were these people properly reimbursed for their expenses. They tried hard, no doubt, but had understandably become disillusioned long before the process was over. They knew the count wasn't going to be close to accurate. The people who employed them let them, and us, down.

Now, to rub salt into their (and our) wounds, Statistics has announced that it is going to prosecute 60 people around the country who "deliberately" failed to complete the census. Six of those people live in Northland. It should be prosecuting those who "deliberately" made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of people to take part for dereliction of duty.

If these people — 0.008 per cent of those who did not participate if you believe Dr Smith, 0.013 per cent if your believe Ms MacPherson — are convicted they will be liable to fines of up to $500, and another $20 per day if they continue to fail to meet their obligation. Hopefully at least some of those charged will be able to prove that they asked, and asked, and asked again for forms to be delivered to them, without success.

And how were the 60 selected? How does Statistics NZ even know they exist? How can the Government defend prosecuting such an infinitesimal sample of so many offenders? Who has a dollar that says these prosecutions will be as shambolic as the census itself?

Presumably the unfortunate 60 will be people who had papers delivered to them, in which case they would have had to request them. It seems odd that they would do that then refuse to fill them in. Unless, of course, they found some of the questions so inane as to be not worth answering. Either way, they are being made scapegoats for a bureaucratic cock-up.

Meanwhile, Mr Shaw might like to ponder his responsibilities as minister. He might not have sown the seeds of this debacle but it is up to him to fix it, and all the signs so far are that he is siding with the civil servants who presided over this fiasco. It really does need to be done again. Properly.

A narrow roadBeleaguered soon-to-be-ex-Wallaby Israel Folau is not entirely without friends as he battles to save his career following the posting his view that the wages of sin are death, and worse, and that the sinners who run the risk of eternal damnation include homosexuals.

Former Wallaby coach Alan Jones is one of the few who have spoken up for him, "Who cares? It's an opinion," he said. "I don't necessarily agree with what he said, by the way, but a lot of people don't agree with what I say. We're going down a very, very narrow road here ... I'm telling you, out there people are terrified of saying anything. They are frightened, they don't know what they can say.

" ... it's got nothing to do with Israel, or rugby, or religion, or homosexuals or whatever. Where are we in this country on free speech?"

Good question. Now Billy Vunipola is being asked to explain to England and his club Saracens why he defended Folau's right to express his faith, while back here a pamphlet entitled One Treaty One Nation, calling for an end to state partnership with Māori, scrapping the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori electorates and wards, and saying Māori have benefited from colonisation lifting them out of 'a violent Stone Age existence', apparently meets Justice Minister Andrew Little's definition of hate speech and is under official investigation.

A narrow road indeed.

One more question. If Folau was a Muslim, and had called for death by stoning for homosexuals and adulterers, would he have been so mercilessly mocked, not least by Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells?