Just when it seemed the 2018 Census debacle couldn't become any more farcical, it has. In courts up and down the land, a token 60 representative recalcitrants are being dragged before the judiciary for failing to fill in a form.
That leaves, by my calculation, only about 699,940 fellow citizens quaking in their boots waiting for their turn to be disciplined. For that's the grand total of Kiwis, so Statistics New Zealand chief executive Liz Macpherson confessed to a parliamentary select committee last month, who had either failed completely (about 460,000) or partially (about 240,000) to participate in the compulsory March 2018 Census.
In other words, around one in every seven New Zealanders broke the law by not filling out this particular form to the bureaucrats' satisfaction. The punishment process promises to be as drawn out as the wait for Census results!
Last week, for instance, a Nelson man failed to appear for his day in the district court and the case was adjourned until mid-July. Earlier in the month in Palmerston North there was another non-show, plus a chap who said he had filed his form and would fight the charge. Both cases were set down for defended hearing next month. The penalty is a maximum fine of $500.
Personally, I don't object to such sanctions lurking in the wings to encourage the odd contrarian to participate in communal activities, such as enrolling to vote, filling in their Census form and the like. But when the whole system crashes to the extent it did in this, the first digital-centred Census, the tumbrels should be rumbling for Macpherson, not the 700,000 citizens who, for whatever reason, failed to complete the forms.
But instead, like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Macpherson and her team have retrieved from their files a five-page manual prepared before the Census titled "Prosecution approach for the 2018 Census". It comes complete with a flow chart labelled "refusals business process".
The document admits there's likely to be "a higher number of those who refuse than is practical to prosecute", so outlines how to single out those with "a strong negative attitude" and then hold selective show trials, "spread throughout New Zealand". They've decided on 60.
Good tactics in normal times perhaps, but after a system meltdown as unprecedented as this, targeting and shaming a few unco-operative citizens can only be seen as a desperate attempt to divert attention from the failure within.
More than a year on from digital Census Day, when a click of the button was supposed to reveal all, we're yet to see a single result. Two deadlines have been abandoned and we're now promised a first peek at basic population data next September.
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To achieve this, the politicians have been forced to throw a further $6 million at the project while the boffins try to fill in the gaping information holes by "imputating" or patching data from other government records into the core Census data.
There's debate about how much of this cobbled-together data will qualify as good enough to be accepted as "official statistics".
The delays in the release of the Census data, and its questionable accuracy, has far-reaching implications. There's the redrawing of parliamentary electorate boundaries which can't begin until September, just a year out from the next election. This leaves little time for the complicated calculations, community consultations and political horse-trading that has to take place.
More critical is the allocation of public funds to hospitals, schools, police, transport and other community activities - all dependent on accurate Census documentation.
A major concern is that a disproportionate slice of the missing 700,000 are Māori and poor. These are the groups most dependent on population-based funding.
The 2013 Census revealed only 69 per cent of Māori had access to the internet compared with 83.8 per cent of non-Māori.
Two years later Professor Miriam Lips, chair in digital government at Victoria University of Wellington, noted that "the most digitally excluded groups are adults with disabilities, children with special needs, Pasifika, Māori, senior citizens, people from low socio-economic backgrounds and those living in regions or communities of low internet uptake rates …"
If anyone should be on trial, it's not 60 recalcitrants with their bad attitudes who have been singled out for public humiliation. It's those directly responsible for the catastrophe.