Māori have been undercounted in the last two Censuses. We explain why more accurate data for Māori in this year’s Census is so important.

When the Government decides how much money to spend each year, its decisions are informed by data from the Stats NZ Census.

The Census collects detailed information about ordinary people's lives every five years and shows the Government where to put things like schools, parks and swimming pools.

It also tells us which communities are where, and what their needs might be. 

When kaupapa Māori organisations negotiate with the Crown, they use Census data in their tenders for health and social contracts. Providers delivering services directly to Māori communities are usually funded based on the number of Māori in their rohe. 

But for a number of reasons, Māori have traditionally been undercounted in the Census.

Clunky rollouts, challenging population demographics and scepticism towards the Crown mean data collected about Māori has historically been of lower quality than other groups. 

‘Data is really powerful’

The Government needs to count people in order to provide them with what they need, says Atawhai Tibble, Census Te Ao Māori Director.

“You can’t build houses for invisible people,” he says. 

“You can’t provide services for people you don’t know are there.

“We need to count people to enable us to provide things like hospital beds and classrooms. These are all these things that are fundamental to how society operates and when you’re planning, modelling, making investments, you need to know how many people you’re servicing.”

The data is also constitutionally important. 

In politics, the Māori electorates are calculated according to the number of people who identified as Māori at the Census. 

In 2013, Māori were underestimated by around 49,200 people; enough to have potentially increased the number of Māori seats available in Parliament in 2014 and 2017. 

That’s why data matters, and why it’s so essential Māori engage with the Census, says Tibble. 

“Data is really powerful. If you step back and acknowledge that power, you can see it’s quite precious. It’s a taonga. But it’s fair to say the Crown’s ability to engage with Māori hasn’t always been flash,” he says. 

Overcoming the hurdles of the past

The effects of colonialism, Treaty breaches, dispossession of whenua and the general difficulty of life for many whānau means Māori are less likely to engage with the Census process, Tibble says.

“For a long time in this country’s history it was not a good thing to be Māori. We have experiences and scars and so you put all these things together, and when someone shows up to collect your data, are you going to fill in the form? Maybe not.”

But since the last Census, Tibble says Stats NZ has reimagined its approach to data collection, hoping to understand how data can be conceptualised in a Māori framework.

In 2019, Stats NZ and the Data Iwi Leaders Group of the National Iwi Chairs Forum signed the Mana Ōrite relationship agreement to address previous poor Census engagement in Māori communities, and to use data in a way that benefits Māori. 

The Data and Statistics Act passed in 2022 recognises the Crown’s obligation to consider and provide for Māori interests in data, and this year’s Census programme contains an acknowledgement of the principles of Te Tiriti. 

Ultimately data tells stories, Tibble says, and the tapu of stories to Māori means handling them with care and respect. 

Even questions around holding the data of people who have died creates its own considerations of correct tikanga in a modern, rapidly developing field.

Viewing and treating data as something precious and relevant frames the Census in a way that better services Māori communities, Tibble says.  

“Whānau can see the power of data when it's misused when they look at things like Cambridge Analytica and election fraud, but it’s also about showing them how precious their own data is and how it can affect their lives.

“So it rings true when we frame it as a taonga. The purpose of data is to serve people.”

This content was sponsored by Statistics NZ. This year’s Census takes place on March 7. You can find out more about it at census.govt.nz

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