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Have Asian New Zealanders just overtaken Māori New Zealanders?

By Ian Wishart

In brief

  • The 2023 Census release led with the misleading stat that the Māori population surged to nearly one million.
  • This figure was calculated using additional data sources post-census.
  • The Asian population is projected to have already surpassed the Māori population, potentially reaching around 994,672 by June 2024.

Burying the lead

In the news business, there’s a phrase used by hard-bitten old-timers to describe credulous stories written by gullible cub reporters based on uncritical acceptance and repetition of the highly-spun main angle of somebody’s news release: “burying the lead”.

Essentially, it means the young journos fell for a PR stunt designed to distract them away from reading between the lines or actually analysing the data.

And so it was that when the first data from the 2023 Census dropped last Wednesday morning, virtually every legacy media site carried the same main story: NZ’s Māori population surges 12.5% to nearly one million.

The story was based on this line contained in the Stats Department news release: “The Māori descent census usually resident population count increased by 12.5 percent to 978,246”.

The problem?

When you look at the actual census data from the night of 7 March 2023, only 887,493 people actually ticked the “Māori ethnicity” box. Why was a news release about the Census night count trumpeting “nearly a million” Māori when it was only “nearly 900,000”?

Have Asian New Zealanders just overtaken Māori New Zealanders? - Centrist
The 2023 Census release led with the misleading stat that the Māori population surged to nearly one million. Image: THINKGlobalSchool

The Census asked two relevant questions: what ethnic groups do you belong to, and are you descended from Māori. 

It turns out that since 2018 Stats staff have done their own off-the-cuff calculations using other data sources like the Māori electoral rolls, to boost the numbers. 

Essentially, they are scurrying around after the fact to provide a bigger Māori population number than the one Census delivered them on the night.

But why?

Ostensibly, Stats wants the most accurate Māori demographics it can get, for policy reasons, but that doesn’t explain why their media releases played up the size of that community so much.

A cursory look at the next largest ethnicity group behind Māori may provide a clue: On Census night, 7 March 2023, 887,493 people identified as Māori, but 861,576 people identified as “Asian” – a difference of fewer than 26,000.

Call me cynical, but I can think of a number of reasons why headlines declaring Asian New Zealanders overtaking Māori New Zealanders may have been an unpopular story in some quarters.

According to a Stats explainer, only 85.3% of the 978,246 Māori descendants, or 834,443 people, answered yes to the descent question on the night. 

And so, Stats went on a post-census scramble between March 2023 and now to tag-and-bag an extra 143,803 people (the difference between actual count and the 978k news release figure) who had NOT chosen to claim Māori descent on the night.

As an exercise in putting some daylight between Māori and the Asian population nipping at their heels, if that was indeed the motivation, it still may not be enough: if we pull the same

stunt as Stats and go looking for extra Asians after 7 March 2023, migration figures to 31 December 2023 reveal an extra 106,477 Asian citizens made NZ their new home in 2023. 

Two twelfths of those (17,746) were presumably already here by 7 March 2023, but 88,731 can be added to the 861,576 Asians identified on Census night for a total of 950,307 by 1 January this year.

That’s only 27,939 behind the cobbled-together Māori total of 978,246, and Census never asked an Asian descent question which might have increased the Asian sample further.

But wait, there’s more: if migration has continued at the same rate this year (8873 per month), then a further 44,365 Asians call NZ home this year as of 1 June 2024.

Our call: the Asian population has just reached 994,672, pushing Māori at 978,246 into third place for the first time. Given the similar size of the two cohorts, population change via births and deaths have been put to one side for the purposes of this analysis.

On this extrapolation, NZ’s Asian population will streak past the magic million mark within three weeks.

The 2028 Census will have very different headlines than this one, I suspect.

DISCLOSURE: Ian Wishart’s wife and their children are iwi-affiliated, and their grandchildren include NZ European/Māori, Arab Middle Eastern and South African descent. 

Welcome to the Kiwi melting pot.

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