A brief history of the census

Early settlers to Queenstown in the 19th century.
Early settlers to Queenstown in the 19th century. Photo credit: Getty.

More than a million New Zealanders have already filled in their census online, with today as the official deadline for submitting your information.

The census provides the Government with essential data about the population. That information is used to make decisions about billions of dollars of spending in areas such as transport and education.

Census Snapshot:

  • The first official nationwide census took place in 1851 following an order from the Crown to all colonies. It wasn’t an accurate reflection of the country, however, as it only counted Europeans.  
  • Men outnumbered women by four to three in the first census. Most people were young: only one in every 127 people was over 60. Today the number of men and women are about equal and at the 2006 census, approximately one in every eight people was over 65.
  • The whole European population in 1851 was about the same size as the population of Timaru in 2013
  • Since 1951, all censuses have taken place on a Tuesday, because it’s the day that New Zealanders are statistically least likely to travel.
  • The census was held triennially until 1881, with the Census Act of 1877 then requiring the census be held every five years.  
  • There have only been four censuses which broke the five year pattern since 1881. The 1931 census was cancelled due to the Great Depression.  The 1941 census was cancelled because of World War II. The 1946 Census was brought forward to September 1945 in order to redefine electorates in time for the 1946 elections. Finally, the  2011 census was cancelled due to the Christchurch earthquake.
  • The first digital census was available in 2006, and Statistics New Zealand is aiming for 70 percent of all censuses to be filled out online in 2018.

You are required by law to fill out the census if you are in New Zealand on March 6, even as a visitor.

That law’s lead some Kiwis to find creative ways to avoid filling out the paperwork on census day. The 'Wizard of New Zealand', Ian Channel, allegedly spent the night of the 1981 census in a boat 20km offshore, outside out territorial limits, to avoid filling out his.

Don't panic if you haven't completed yours yet, you will be delivered a census code within a few days but you must complete it as soon as possible.

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