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A fast-spreading email appeal is urging people to state their ethnicity as "New Zealander" in next Tuesday's Census.

The email, which came to the Herald from several sources, reads: "Maybe we can get the powers-that-be to sit up and recognise that we are proud of who we are and that we want to be recognised as such, not divided into sub-categories and all treated as foreigners in our own country.

"Many of us however consider that we, and our families, have been in New Zealand for long enough now that we should be able to claim that as who we are ... regardless of where our ancestors may have come from many centuries ago."

People who record themselves as "New Zealander" or "Kiwi" in the Census will have their responses defined as such for the first time, rather than categorised as New Zealand European.

At the 2001 Census, nearly 78,000 people ignored all the stated options and wrote New Zealander or Kiwi, at least 3000 of them of Maori or Pacific Island descent.

The email appeal seems to be "a statement of independence from Europe or the mother country", says the president of the Population Association, Ward Friesen. People may be trying to reject "the connection with colonialism - I guess the word European is problematic" - or "trying to pretend we're all the same, but it's unrealistic".

As "New Zealander" is a nationality, not an ethnicity, says the Auckland University geographer, and the call is "a tragedy for the data" which will hinder social analysis.

However, social scientist Paul Callister argues that the email's sentiment represents a trend as valid as all the others the Census attempts to document.

"If the New Zealand population suddenly feels they are New Zealanders, then there is a shift occurring which is really important. And if you are finding these people have really complex ancestries and backgrounds - like Maori, European and Pacific - they may think they have gone beyond thinking they belong to one ethnicity.

"Then a social scientist, looking at what's creating social disadvantage, may need to hunt beyond ethnicity because in New Zealand, ethnicity is the explanation for everything. You may find low levels of education are important, or living in a rural area."

Dr Friesen senses "a kind of antagonism to the whole purpose of the ethnicity question" in the email, and suspects a political motive.

"Maybe it's a political statement of some sort. It's kind of linked to the race-based funding debate [about] not differentiating Maori and the rest of the country."

One politician urging people to write "New Zealander" is Deputy Opposition leader Gerry Brownlee, whose party has attacked race-based funding. In a Saturday press release he said officials were "perpetuating the myth that we are country that is ethnically divided". Although Mr Brownlee is aware of the email appeal, he says it did not originate from his office.

Census head Nancy McBeth says that the question about ethnicity is the same as in the 2001 Census, "so that the information can be compared between Censuses", and followed a review involving users of the data. The ability to compare ethnicity responses across censuses, she says, provides important information about how New Zealand's society is changing.

Following an email campaign at the time of the last Census, 53,715 people nominated their religion as "Jedi", the fictional faith of Star Wars movie characters.