Racism and social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: a Pākehā perspective

The following are my thoughts. I am Pākehā. I guess this makes them Pākehā thoughts – my Pākehā thoughts that is. I don’t have a problem acknowledging this and I think it is important to do so. I also think the following things.

It is necessary to talk about difficult subjects in the world of social work. It is important to get to the heart of things and at the same time it is vital not to over-simplify complicated matters. Social workers are often caught in between their clients and the state – between the interests of the powerful and the interests of the marginalised. This positioning creates tension. Social workers are often (and quite correctly) accused of maintaining the status quo in an unequal society, but they also have the opportunity to identify (and understand) the causes and effects of injustice and to do something about it: some work outside the state, some work inside the system, some see themselves balancing a precarious position that is both in and against the state. Some experience all of these locations in the course of a career in social work.  The history of the relationship between Māori and the Crown can be seen in similar terms historically: agitation for change by engagement with Pākehā power structures from outside, inside and in ways that bridge the two.

Many people who talk about the importance of the Pūao-te-Ata-Tū Report have not read it very carefully.  I have always seen it as an extremely hopeful document that arose at a particular time and place. Opportunities for systemic, progressive social change arise at certain points in time. The genesis of Pūao-te-Ata-Tū and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act (1989) (CYPF) came about at such a time. Such victories are not without cost and we owe a debt to the so-called ‘Māori Radicals’ of those days. The core message of Pūao-te-Ata-Tū is about institutional racism as expressed in the first objective:

To attack all forms of cultural racism in New Zealand that result in the values and lifestyle of the dominant group being regarded as superior to those of other groups, especially Māori, by: (a) Providing leadership and programmes which help develop a society in which the values of all groups are of central importance to its enhancement; and (b) Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Māori people in all practice developed for the future of New Zealand.

Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was not perfect or beyond criticism. The bicultural vision that grew out of it can be seen as yet another form of colonial assimilation. However it was a lofty vision that many of us embraced at the time. It dramatically influenced our child welfare law in the form of the CYP&F Act. The Act can also be criticised (and was at the time) for not giving enough real authority to whānau, hapū, and iwi. However, many of us grasped the opportunity to empower and support whānau to care for their children – we dared to imagine a time when state care for Māori would be a thing of the past.

Why didn’t this happen? This is the bit that gets complicated. First of all Pūao-te-Ata-Tū recommended that this anti-racist objective “be endorsed by the Government for the development of Social Welfare policy in New Zealand”. Although Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was endorsed/accepted by the then Department of Social Welfare it never became a whole of government policy. One government department was not likely to radically reform the essentially mono-cultural society (in terms of dominant or mainstream values, beliefs and lifestyle) which New Zealand remains to this day.  Secondly, the most tangible practical recommendation in Pūao-te-Ata-Tū was the establishment of a Social Welfare Commission and local community based Executive Committees to oversee the functioning of District Welfare Offices. This was a radical proposal that was really about distributive democracy and community governance. It was adopted for a very short period and abandoned because of the threat posed to the central state.

Finally, and most importantly, we endured the economic reforms of the 1990s – the rise of the New Right and the associated policies of economic rationalism. The promise of Puao-Te-Ata-Tu needed a parallel process of whānau support, empowerment and development (which still echoes faintly in the policy of Whānau Ora). What Māori got was unprecedented job losses in working class industries and the gutting of the trade union movement with the opening of the economy to global capital. We were presented with Ruth Richardson’s draconian benefit cuts for good measure.  You could do anything you liked with a Family Group Conference provided you didn’t spend more than $600.00. I know – I was there. What iwi got – essentially – was empowerment without resources.

The revolutionary aspect of the CYP&F Act was (following Pūao-te-Ata-Tū) understanding the welfare of Māori children in the context of the Māori world – as inevitably defined by whakapapa and the right to belong to whānau.  We have seen a constant push back against this view in the watering down of the legislation and the concept of child-centric practice – in amendments to the CYP&F Act and most recently in the Vulnerable Children’s Act (2014).  We are going to see more of it: the proposed reforms are about earlier entry into permanent care and less emphasis on whānau placement. It is being suggested that cultural connectedness can be built outside of whānau connectedness. This is linked with wider welfare reform that is driven by a perceived need to discipline the socially excluded and hold them individually responsible for their misfortune. The argument is that if people can’t accept this discipline, their children need to be saved. This is what child centred social workers are for. This practice direction is informed by neoliberal political dogma that serves a particular set of social and economic interests. For the most part it is not in the interests of Māori . It is about one rule for the rich and another for the poor. It is unjust but capitalism (globally) has to do something about the underclass that it creates. We are seeing this shift in welfare policy in similar English speaking societies across the globe. To see the effects of growing inequality in New Zealand society it is only necessary to look around you – and it is something that social workers are confronted with every day.

This is what Parton (2014) refers to as ‘muscular’ child protection. It involves the state using its monopoly on legitimate violence against those least able to defend themselves. The outcomes are inevitably racist and also classist and sexist. This practice direction is informed by neoliberal political dogma that serves a particular set of privileged social and economic interests. By contrast, adult clients of the statutory child welfare system are often young  Māori parenting in relative poverty and struggling in a complex (yes, sometimes intergenerational) web of social distress and disadvantage. Such people are blamed, demonised and mocked in popular middle class discourse. Child welfare is an emotive political football. There are alternatives to rescue mentality foster care and it is part of our collective responsibility to name the kinds of social work that can be practiced to support, empower and build safety with the families who are brought to the attention of statutory social work.

Child welfare is an emotive political football. Some families – Māori and Pākehā – sometimes present situations that are dangerous, damaging or even fatal for children. Sometimes children need to be removed. There are generally other ways of protecting and nurturing such children in the context of whānau, hapū, and iwi, but this isn’t always easy or cheap. Families suffering multiple stresses need highly skilled and well-resourced intervention and a capable tangata whenua worker will generally get better results with whānau than a Pākehā worker. Sometimes practice is overtly racist but causation is complex. Tangata whenua  are over-represented in the indices of poverty and social distress. This is a legacy of colonisation and capitalism and can take more than one Family Group Conference to turn around. However strengths can be found, care nurtured, protection built and power can be shared. It is not easy work and it won’t be made easier in the near future if I am reading the signs correctly.

So, what can Pākehā do to promote anti-racist practice at this point in time?  I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer. Listen – really listen – to Māori but be real and true to your own values – we are all made of clay. Understand that  Māori culture differs from dominant Pākehā beliefs, protocols and decision making processes. Accept also that contemporary Māori identity is diverse – avoid one size fits all categorizations. Speak with / not for but do name racism in your world. Listen with respect and give it where it is due – be prepared to learn – always.  Pardon the sermon! The thing about the struggle for social justice is that it is not a process with an end point. The good fight is ongoing: dialogue, solidarity, courage, and humility are needed at this time. If we want a progressive social work that does not oppress the indigenous people of this magical land we must constantly work to make it this way and appreciate that others – especially tangata whenua – are also compelled to stand up for what social work tells them about inequality and injustice. Is this stubborn idealism in the face of the apparently irresistible blunt force of neoliberal politics? I certainly hope so!

Happy New Year

Ian Hyslop


Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit | Liz West

20 replies on “Racism and social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: a Pākehā perspective”

Wow Ian Hyslop. Happy new year to you from my whanau and I.
I just read this piece out to them and…smiles for miles. What a treat to get a “Pākehā perspective of racism and social work.” Thank you most for the final paragraph. And I’m sure there will be many more smiles from others. I’m sharing this. Yaye to solidarity. Nga mihi nui, Paora.

Tena koe e Paora Moyle – hope you and yours had a good Christmas. Yeah we need to get this stuff right and to do that we need to talk about what racism in social work means in this place in the here and now – without losing sight of the past. I hope we get some more dialogue on this – we are at a critical time for social work and we do need trust and solidarity if we are to build effective resistance … And we need to make space to talk about some hard stuff.

Hi Ian

As a pakeha social work student u found this article extremely interesting! So thank you very much for sharing this!

Some good lessons here for me to take into the future!

Cheers again!

Very glad you found this useful Reese. There is a long history of pakeha responses to the issue of racism in Aotearoa / New Zealand – particularly the relationship with pakeha and tangata whenuau … And it is not something that can be solved and moved on from – it is something we must always front up to and work on if we intent to practice social work in this country.


Kia ora Ian, thank you for articulating many of my own thoughts. I came into SW training when Puao te ata tu was fresh off the press. Was a student on placement the end of 1989 and in the first trial YJ FGC’s. We were already talking then about lack of resource to make the dream the reality. And then 1990 reforms which took us down the neo liberalist path, which we have never recovered from. I sat through CandP FGC’s (not as a CYF employer but usually as an another agency information provider). watching the decisions be limited by the $600 amount, knowing that the best route might be 3 x a week supervised access and being lucky to get 1 because of the costs related to the supervisor. Hard questions indeed. How to front up to them with fresh insight and avoiding burnout is a mystery to me at times, but as a Pakeha, I cut my political teeth on Puaoteatatu. Anything less than that ideal is a sign for me to retire from a 30 year career. I just need to locate where I left my stubbornness. Thanks for the inspirational analysis Ian. Ann-Marie

Thanks for your thoughts Ann-Marie. It is important to see that it is not the vision that failed but the political will to make it happen … it gets reinterpretted as a falure of vision which is used to justify the move away from whanau -centred practice.


Kia ora Ian

Thankyou for this korero, I go with my puku and the red flags are flying after reading this. Earlier entry into permanent care for a child is devastating, that cultural connectedness can be built outside of whanau connectedness is deplorable, A cultural connectedness can be built outside of family connectedness, but Maori cultural connectedness cannot be built outside of whanau connectedness .A tamaiti Maori will have no sense of belonging once whanau connection is severed, some may feel they belong in a carers care to a certain degree but believe me their baggage will have been pre packed right from that first initial severing of that whanau umbilical cord. Tamariki die in care and after care ends (young adulthood). Are pakeha tamariki placed in Samoan, indian, chinese, Maori or turkish families and expected to assimilate?
The powers to be need to get in touch once more with the plight of Maori that obviously is very painful to this day, holding the socially excluded and unfortunate people responsible with the ‘Muscular’ child protection policies has now set our country at an all time low, Maori WHANAU need to be saved when issues become overwhelming and the continuing battle legacy left to them from the grief and loss suffered through many many generations. Child Centric policies and practices have got us to where we are today, we need to place our practice around the Family, Youth and Child Services, WHANAU, RANGATAHI, TAMAITI SERVICES. Disciplining by taking a child has know where to go but in circles. Social work -Work Socially, empathize, offer help, options, resources with rewards, catch a whanau being good, assist and support mental health (we are aware of mental health illnesses plaguing our people it’s rampant and yet we punish instead of working with the issue and the person/people. Nga mihi nunui ki a koe Ian.

I read your article last night and again this morning as the issues you discuss resonate with me at a very deep level. i have so much to say not certain where to begin – i keep wondering if one of the missing ingredients is empathic connection at so many levels?

Hi Sandra – Yes, joining with / working with other people – putting the social work back in child protection – putting measurement and risk where it belongs … this is important I think.

Thanks for this well considered piece Ian. You’ve articulated some really important ideas and laid down some good challenges to us all.
Nga mihi, Barb

Thanks for that acknowledgement Barb – a New Year – new hope for the relationship between social work and social justice in the real hear and now.

Kia ora Ian,
what a great piece to read as I begin 2016! I like the way you closed it – you remind us of how important it is to act differently in everyday ways. I have forwarded the link to the Manna Community too. Kia kaha!

Thanks Ian, an excellent call to action. Having been a junior social worker when Puao te ata tu was launched, and remembering the hopefulness of that time I realise we couldn’t of imagined how much things would change to our current context of such a powerful neoliberal world. All the more reason to fight racism and create better social work responses together. Kia ora, David.

Thank you David – luckily you are still young and strong – Ae, we have to keep our heads up and generate solidarity.

Bit of a black arm band today with the signing of the TPPA which, as Jane Kelsey points out, is really another form of colonization – making the world ‘free’ for corporate profit. But if you look at the protest and consciousness raising / opposition generated there is always hope for progressive change – and social work must be embedded in the fight for social justice in these testing times:

” The good fight is fought on all fronts and in all forms / advancing and outflanking / retreating and retrenching / restocking and replenishing / re-imagining and re-inventing … for the guises of oppression are many …. and the road to Damascas has many donkeys”.

Kia ora Ian

Thank you for this well written korero….. i am currently doing the Bi-Cultural Social Work Degree ( 4 years). Your korero is appreciated….

Kia Ora Francie – Good to see this material of some use – hang in there and enjoy your study – have some fun but ask the hard questions.

Best wishes


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