Lawyer Graeme Edgeler's take on Te Pāti Māori data probe: Stats NZ could face legal action

Lawyer Graeme Edgeler says Stats NZ could face legal action if its own investigation finds that Census data was used to help Te Pāti Māori's election campaign - allegations the party denies.

The Sunday Star-Times was the first to report claims by former staff at Manurewa Marae in south Auckland, that Census data was photocopied and used to help Te Pāti Māori's 2023 election campaign.

It triggered a high-level meeting of nine departments on Friday, led by the Acting Public Service Commissioner Heather Baggott, who described it as "a first step to ensure that all relevant agencies are acting to examine the recent allegations".

The allegations relate to a partnership last year between Stats NZ and the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency - led by Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere - to lift low Census response rates from Māori in Auckland. Manurewa Marae was involved with collecting the information.

Stats NZ has launched an independent investigation and it has notified the Privacy Commissioner. Police have received complaints and have an investigation underway. 

It's alleged that Census data was photocopied and used to target voters in the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate. The seat was won by Te Pāti Māori's Takutai Tarsh Kemp by 42 votes.

There are also claims that food incentives were used to encourage Māori to switch from the general to the Māori roll.

Tamihere denied the allegations.

"Whilst we have welcomed the independent review initiated by Statistics New Zealand, we consider that given our knowledge, these allegations are frivolous but require Police to sanction our view," he said in a statement.

"We have asked the journalist to front with the evidence on behalf of those making the allegations. They have not.

"We welcome an immediate investigation into these allegations to once again prove our innocence, and to highlight the bias in media."

Edgeler - an electoral law expert - said if Stats NZ's investigation finds that Census data was copied, retained, and then used to help Te Pāti Māori's election campaign, it could lead to legal action, because private data is protected under the law.

"The financial damage claims that can follow from certain privacy breaches can be reasonably substantial, particularly if there are a lot of breaches," he said.

If it's found that people's data was misused, those people could potentially sue the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Edgeler said.

"Yes, or potentially also Statistics New Zealand, who's got the information and who potentially hasn't put in place the types of protections for that information."

Government statistician and Stats NZ chief executive Mark Sowden said independent investigator Doug Craig had been appointed to lead the investigation.

"Like the New Zealand public, we are very concerned about the allegations, and we are taking this extremely seriously," Craig said in a statement.

"We need to understand whether the personal information provided by people was handled appropriately, and in a way that's consistent with our expectations and with the requirements of the Data and Statistics Act and the Privacy Act."

The Stats NZ probe is expected to conclude at the end of July, and the findings will be shared with the police.