Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Editorial: Census a duty worth performing

Of all the official forms we have to fill in none is more important than the questionnaire we must answer tonight. "Must" is a word that raises the hackles of some, particularly when they meet questions that seem pointless or impertinent, but must is the word. Failure to fill in the Census is a punishable offence. Officialdom needs this snapshot of the population to get an idea of who we are, how we live and in what ways we are changing.

Who we are is always the most contentious question. The Statistics Department asks it in two ways: first, where we were born and, second, what ethnic group we belong to. The second is a distasteful question for many in the largest ethnic group who are designated in the Census as "New Zealand European". The Census designers would have been better advised to describe them as "New Zealanders of European descent", or even "European New Zealanders" to satisfy those who do not distinguish their ethnicity from their nationality.

Some of them always write "New Zealander" into the space provided and this time Statistics NZ says it will no longer add them to the "European" category; it will count them as a distinct group. What this will do to the results is anybody's guess. If most of the "New Zealander" category are European it will deflate the numbers in the latter category, which already has been artificially deflated in a different way in previous counts.

Problems have arisen previously from the way the department has counted people who put themselves in two or more ethnic groups. They were counted in only one group in order to ensure the ethnic proportions of the population added up to 100 per cent. If they were part-European they were always put in their other category. This time the department has changed its policy and will count people of mixed ethnicity into all the categories they put themselves. Consequently the ethnic composition of the population will add up to more than 100 per cent. It will be interesting to see how social research deals with that.

The Maori figures were those most distorted by the previous counting practice, since everybody who was part-Maori was put only in the Maori category, and those figures might be the most affected by the change of policy. Some exaggerated projections of the future Maori population might have to be revised in the light of this Census. But the proportionate decline might not be as marked if the European tally is also reduced by the numbers who write in an indeterminate ethnicity such as New Zealander.

What is ethnicity anyway? One social scientist, Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University, Albany, defined it in the Herald as membership of a particular cultural tradition or community. Despite his European ancestry, his ethnic identity was "a product of being born and raised in New Zealand" but he did not think it appropriate to answer "New Zealander" to the ethnic question.

"To insist that we should be only New Zealanders is to deny Jewish, Samoan, Dutch or Maori New Zealanders, and others, an identity that is important to them. The Census is one opportunity to indicate that they remain proud members of such communities," he wrote.

But if that is the reason the Census includes an ethnic question, he ought to allow everyone the identity most important to them. There should be provision for those whose proudest cultural tradition is New Zealand. Their number seems as useful as other data the Census will discover. It is through the five-yearly Census that everyone contributes to the sum of our self-knowledge. Do it dispassionately. Good social decisions depend on it.

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