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I offered to delay census: Simpson

A former National Party minister says he offered to delay the census after the Kaikōura quakes. David Williams reports.

When National’s Scott Simpson took over as Statistics Minister in May 2017, the IT systems for the following year’s census were still being built, and a test run in Whanganui had been affected by a Civil Defence emergency.

Six months earlier, the Kaikōura quakes had damaged Stats NZ’s Wellington headquarters, leaving the department scrambling to access its data, stabilise its computer systems, and address a backlog of work.

Pressure was building ahead of census day, on March 6, 2018.

The 2011 Christchurch quake had delayed the census and, Simpson tells Newsroom, he was prepared to do it again for the 2018 survey.

“I can recall on several occasions – informally, granted – but on several occasions, speaking with the chief executive and the senior management team, indicating my willingness to postpone census for a year,” he says. “There was significant pushback from the chief executive and her team to that proposition.”

“In reply to consistent, regular questioning of the chief executive and the senior management team, I have to say the answers were always upbeat, always positive, and always very gung ho.” – Scott Simpson

On Tuesday, chief statistician Liz MacPherson resigned over the botched census.

A damning independent review, released publicly as MacPherson fell on her sword, pointed to multiple failings by Stats NZ, including not referring issues and major decisions to its governance boards, and giving over-confident assessments to ministers.

One of those ministers was Simpson, whose tenure was ended by the 2017 general election. Newsroom interviewed him yesterday before he took the stage at the Environmental Defence Society conference in Auckland. We asked him if he was comfortable with what he was being told by Stats NZ about the census.

Simpson says he was concerned about Stats NZ’s ability to make deadlines and achieve what he thought was an ambitious census plan. “Those concerns were only exacerbated by the impact of the earthquake,” he says.

“In reply to consistent, regular questioning of the chief executive and the senior management team, I have to say the answers were always upbeat, always positive, and always very gung ho.”

That gels with the independent review’s finding that there was “a level of optimism in the reporting to ministers that was not always consistent with the level of issues being managed by the programme”. The review said risks raised in ministerial briefings were largely confined to technological issues, and “it is not clear that ministers had a full appreciation of the risk landscape”.

Simpson says ministers rely on responses from officials to be free, frank and straight-forward. He had a gut feeling something was wrong but relied on the answers he was given, he says, adding: “Ministers of whatever political ilk don’t have extra-sensory perception.”

“In hindsight, having read that report, there are clearly some questions that I think still remain unanswered, in terms of how accurate the advice not only I was getting as minister, but my predecessors and then my successor minister as well.”

Those in glasshouses...

If there’s political blame for the census bungle, the National Party can’t avoid the lion’s share of it. It had five Ministers of Statistics – Maurice Williamson, Nicky Wagner, Craig Foss, Mark Mitchell, and Simpson – before Shaw came along.

Simpson was the only one doing much talking yesterday. Wagner and Mitchell didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Williamson was minister from 2008 to 2014. During his watch, Cabinet made an in-principle agreement for a modernised 2018 census. He’s now Consul-General to the United States, based in Auckland. He tells Newsroom: “Sorry – but as a diplomat I make no comments at all on New Zealand politics. Part of the job description.”

Foss was Minister between October 2014 and December 2016. The North Canterbury earthquake happened on his watch, and, as Minister, he agreed to delay the 2017 dress rehearsal by a month – from March to April.

“I won't be commenting,” Foss says, “other than I think the review identified, revealed and described the issues around Census 2018 very well”.

Possibly ignoring advice that those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones, National Party leader Simon Bridges this week accused Shaw of being asleep at the wheel – having “blind confidence” in what he was being told. When Bridges questioned whether the census figures could be trusted, Shaw called that tactic “desperate” and “burn-the-house-down” politics.

Cynical about Stats NZ advice

Simpson – who, it’s worth noting, says ministers “rely on the quality of the answers that are provided to us” – expressed similar sentiments to Bridges yesterday.

“The real issue here is that the data that has been received from census 2018 is now so suspect that [it raises questions about] big decisions that governments make about spending allocations, where money is spent, where schools are built, where hospitals are built, all that sort of thing.”

Is that fair though? Population data will be the most robust of the census statistics and had been approved by an independent data quality review panel.

“Well, that’s what we’re being told – but you’ll forgive my cynicism,” Simpson says.

In his own electorate – Coromandel – reports emerged very soon after the census of field officers not visiting sites that were difficult and hard to get to, he says.

“Now if that occurred in a rural provincial like the Coromandel, where else did it occur? As the local MP am I confident about the projected numbers of people that are living in my electorate? The answer is, right now, no I can’t be.”

Asked whether more Stats NZ executives should be made accountable for the census disaster, Simpson says: “That’s not a decision that I’m involved in anymore.”

But he’s quite happy to criticise Shaw. The Minister wasn’t in New Zealand on census day – as Climate Change Minister he was accompanying Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on a Pacific trip – and didn’t put out a single press release urging people to take part in the crucial, five-yearly survey.

“He was a very hands-off minister from the time that he took over the role. I think that he may not have been as focused on the portfolio as he was on his other portfolio responsibilities.”

Data’s credible, National’s not: Shaw

Shaw retorts that National should produce evidence to show that more people participate in the census because the Minister of Statistics is in the country and issues press releases.

In a written statement, he says: “Neither I, the independent expert census review panel, nor Stats NZ are denying there were faults in the 2018 Census and that there are lessons which must be learned for the next census.

“But the National opposition’s desperate attempts to discredit the key work achieved from the 2018 Census, to provide the required standard of population information for electoral boundaries and other statutory requirements, not to mention National’s spurious arguments that somehow all of Stats NZ’s wider data work is no longer credible, is what’s really not credible.”

The review mentioned – as Simpson did – that the 2018 plan was ambitious; too ambitious, perhaps, to be done in one five-year period. That’s something, Shaw says, that ministers like him, and Simpson, inherited and couldn’t change.

(It’s ironic that National attacks the use of administrative data when it was National ministers who decided that it should be increasingly used in censuses.)

The census data is used to make decisions on billions of dollars of taxpayer money, including where to build schools and district health board funding. It’s also crucial for setting electoral boundaries. Simpson says there’s a good argument not to proceed with a “rushed and questionable” electoral boundary re-draw process.

While admitting some “sub-category” information is below the official standard, Shaw says the most important data, including those for setting electoral boundaries, will be better than the last two censuses.

“Why National can’t seem to accept that appears to be politically driven.”

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