Friday, March 03, 2006

Brian Rudman: Census should allow 'Aucklander' as an ethnicity

Over the weekend I had planned to repeat my little protest of past Census days and write in New Zealander or Pakeha when I got to the ethnic box.

But now that National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee has jumped on the bandwagon, all the fun's gone out of it. Looks like I'll have to go with Aucklander instead.

And why not? The rest of the country thinks we're a different breed anyway.

Only flaw here is that when I checked with Statistics New Zealand, they told me they don't consider Aucklander an ethnicity and will file any form claiming to be from an ethnic Aucklander in a never-neverland labelled "Outside scope." Which at least is better than in past Censuses, when the write-in anti-European protest was unceremoniously tossed back into the European pot anyway.

But Statistics' ruling against Aucklander being an ethnicity does seem a tad unfair. If New Zealander can suddenly become a new ethnic group, then surely Aucklander is no less or more qualified.

This miraculous discovery of a new ethnicity, of course, has nothing to do with scientific research into skin colour or religion or culture or the comparative width of one's cranium.

It's a Government department's slick way of handling growing popular disaffection, which in 2001 had 78,000 people - mostly Pakeha but at least 3000 Maori or Pacific Islanders as well - labelling themselves New Zealander or Kiwi.

The listing of these two new fake ethnicities has already been called a tragedy by Auckland University geographer Ward Friesen, who sees it as a major setback for social analysts like himself. Poor chaps. Apparently it will be harder for them to make their numbers add up.

But on the plus side, by separately classifying the protesters - or pathfinders - Dr Friesen and colleagues will be able to dry their eyes, crouch over their computer screens and discover whether self-labelled New Zealanders and Kiwis have fewer cellphones and more sex, get divorced more often and earn less money than traditional stuck-in-a-colonial-rut New Zealand Europeans.

They'll also be able to match the results up with the other listed ethnicities such as Maori, Chinese, Tongan and Indian.

I'm not naive enough to think we can all become one big happy family if we pretend we don't come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.

But the New Zealand European one has always seemed meaningless, taking in, as it does, everyone descended from a former inhabitant of the continent stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, not forgetting the off-shore British Isles.

It certainly meant little back in 1946, when an official Dominion Population Committee divided New Zealand's population into just three categories, Europeans, Maori and "race aliens". While Europeans were lumped together as one group, those of "British stock" were to be migrants of first preference, and if we couldn't get them, then lookalikes from Scandinavia and the Netherlands came next.

As for the swarthy southern Europeans, the population committee noted that "these types" had caused problems in the past, being "itinerant" and "without any real feeling of allegiance to this country."

Leaping forward 60 years, it would be nice to think we've progressed beyond these crude stereotypes and it would also be nice to see Government departments taking a lead. Do Census takers have to sit us down every five years and demand we compartmentalise ourselves into some historically based pigeon hole?

Why do they need to know, any more than why, a couple of years back, did an Auckland Regional Council pollster, surveying me on a recent rates hike, want to know whether I was a Maori, Pacific Islander or European? What did it have to do with the time of day?

Chinese, I would have thought, is as meaningless as European, lumping in locally born "Old Chinese" with migrants of widely differing backgrounds from across the globe.

Ditto Indian, who could be local, from Fiji, Africa, the subcontinent or anywhere else.

If the researchers want to know where people come from, then place of birth is surely a better guide. If they want to identify pockets of deprivation, then why no return to the obvious indicators like low income and poor education.

On second thoughts, I'm happy Gerry Brownlee has seen the light about this. Let's hope, by next Census, we can persuade him to oppose the whole cluster of ethnic questions.

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