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Cancellation of 2011 Census


Census poster at the Lyttelton Information Centre on Oxford St, Lyttelton, 19 November 2011.

New Zealand’s five-yearly census was due to be held on 8 March 2011. In the aftermath of the February earthquake, Government Statistician Geoff Bascand and Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson announced that it would not go ahead. Statistics New Zealand’s Christchurch operations had been significantly disrupted, and the exodus of people from the city would have skewed the results. At the time of the announcement on 25 February, Williamson commented:

This is not the time to go door to door asking New Zealanders for information when they’re dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake… It’s unthinkable that we would ask this of people. It would be an unfair burden and distraction at a time when they are grieving. [1]

Cancelling the census so close to the due date cost around $65 million. All the forms had been printed and contractors had delivered them to half a million houses. Michael describes his experiences as a census-taker in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake:

In a bit of irony, after those initial reports, my next visit was to a young mother whose husband was in Christchurch doing some consulting work. She was obviously distressed, but had the presence of mind to keep her children isolated from the reports. She had moved her two young children to the bedroom where they could be entertained by a DVD playing some cartoon while she watched the TV in the living room for some indication of the area where her husband might be. Hours after that visit came the directive to cease all census-taking operations.

A few months later I stopped by to see if that young woman’s partner had survived. I learned then that he was still in Christchurch, recovering from having a limb amputated. I also learned that she had spent an agonising eight days trying to find out if her husband was still alive. My heart goes out to that young lady every time I hear another story about Christchurch.

When announcing the cost of the aborted survey, Statistics New Zealand noted that the lack of fresh census data would probably cost the country considerably more, as government agencies would have to rely on ‘ageing and potentially wrong data from 2006’. The census eventually took place on 5 March 2013, two years late. The five-yearly pattern resumed when the next census was held on 6 March 2018.

The census has been cancelled on two other occasions – in 1931 as an economy measure during the Depression (despite the protests of Government Statistician Malcolm Fraser), and in 1941 because of the Second World War. These censuses were not rescheduled, although the 1946 census was brought forward six months to September 1945 so electorate boundaries could be redrawn before the 1946 election. 



Census poster in window, Michael Davies
Canterbury Museum, 2013.17.123

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Cancellation of 2011 Census, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated