"It could've gone better." Those were the closing words today from Statistics Minister James Shaw in response to the scathing review of Census 2018 that saw the resignation of Stats NZ chief executive Liz MacPherson.
Census 2018 faced low response rates, delays and limited communication. A review made public today found the census was overly complex and ineffective, its leadership lacked strategic direction and effective management, and there was low understanding of how the new census model would perform.
On whether he should have been more involved in the census process, Mr Shaw said he was "specifically told, barring the printing of the materials, the census, 'could be run tomorrow' and that it was basically ready to go", when he first came into the role of Statistics Minister.
"I did ask about the manual component, and there were no risks that were escalated to me," he told reporters today.
"This census changed virtually every single element of census delivery and...perhaps it would have been wiser to stage those changes, not through one census but over two or three census cycles."
Mr Shaw would not reveal when Ms MacPherson informed him of her resignation, and whether it was before or after reading the review.
"She has taken accountability for the failings in the census and I support that," he said.
National hit out at the handling of the fallout, with MP Jian Yang saying Mr Shaw needed to take responsibility for the "abysmal handling".
Mr Yang said Ms MacPherson "should not be a scapegoat for James Shaw, whose failure to show leadership played a significant part in this mess".
"He let things spiral out of control to the point where much of the data may no longer be useful," he added. "That creates enormous problems for the billions of dollars in funding for health, education, police and other vital services that depend on reliable census numbers.
"This failure also has massive implications for the next election, with reliable data required to draw accurate electoral boundaries and decide the number of seats in Parliament. Māori risk losing an electorate seat because of the delay."
But Mr Shaw said his opposition colleague is wrong. Stats NZ has worked hard to fill in the gaps from other Government data sources, he said.
Mr Shaw said the "most important" population data was better in 2018 than previous censuses.
"The most important objective of the 2018 census was to provide population data which meets required statutory standards for setting electoral boundaries and making funding decisions for district health boards, and that has been accomplished," he said.
"While the review has found failings, these are being fixed."