Hope for change at close of year

It is useful – I think – to reflect on the busy year that is now drawing in and to focus on the hopes and dreams that lie ahead of us. In various ways the aim of our RSW Collective has been to contribute to a re-thinking of the aims and aspirations of social work in turbulent times. Above all it is critical to recognise that social work is influenced by a broader context of economic and political relations.

On the world stage the international banking system has favoured corporate profit and free trade at the expense of developing nations since the 1950s. Locally the removal of the social safety net for disadvantaged people from the 1980s has resulted, at latest estimates, in 155,000 New Zealand children living in poverty in our Kiwi paradise (Child Poverty Monitor, 2016). The beauty and the challenge of social work is that we work with those who experience structural disadvantage in an unequal society – not unequal by human nature but a society made unequal by political and economic intent. How we act on this knowledge, in our practice and in our wider lives, is perhaps the key task that confronts us in the social profession.

For millennia poets and philosophers have told us that there is a difference between appearances and realities in social and political life. This is certainly true in contemporary Aotearoa-New Zealand. Our outgoing Prime Minister, for example, presented as genuine, accessible, pragmatic, competent and, above all, as one of us. We are – after all – ‘all Kiwis’; even better we are all ‘good Kiwis’. Whatever you think of John Key’s political abilities (and hard work) it is important to remember that he is a lavishly wealthy man with access to a lifestyle that has little or no correspondence to the lived experience of most of us. He made his money from the dubious and high-stakes business of international currency trading. Politicians like John Key and Paula Bennett who benefitted from the shelter of the wider welfare state are happy to bar the door to the children of today. Perhaps we are all Kiwis but some of us have luxury yachts and multiple investment properties and some of us live in sheds or cars. It does not have to be this way.

Foucault (1980) wrote of how unequal relations of power are inscribed and normalised in our daily lives.  It was Antonio Gramsci (1971/1997) who scribbled on scraps of paper, as he died a slow death in Mussolini’s prison, about how the dominant narrative is packaged as common sense by those who gain from the status quo.  Politicians have told us that poverty is no excuse for abuse and that poor parenting causes poverty. Elaborate schemes are being developed to identify and fix benefit-dependent parents or alternatively remove their children to a land of teddy bears, cuddles and designer barbeques (the imagined safe, secure and loving homes of middle New Zealand). It does not have to be this way.

The power of the trade union movement has been systematically undermined from the late 1980s and the disparities in wealth and choice among us ‘good Kiwis’ have never been greater. Economic inequality breeds social suffering and social discontent (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). It cannot be fixed by individual re-moralisation of the poor. This didn’t work in the Nineteenth century and it won’t work now. As social workers we know that the dominant story is simplistic, deceptive and untrue. It conceals a classist and racist belief system. It blames the poor for the consequences of inadequate housing, social security and poorly resourced state social work. We live in a bountiful country and we are all entitled – as citizens – to a decent life regardless of education and privilege.

Social work is about working with the oppressed towards a fairer social world and this inevitably involves taking a political stance. As the unexpected Brexit referendum result in Britain and the bizarre election of Donald Trump in the U.S tell us, neoliberalism has disenfranchised and embittered working people across the western world. It is time for the political left to re-think the path to a more socially just order, locally and globally. It is hoped that the writings in this blog space have contributed to a questioning of the dominant narrative and to a re-thinking of the pathway towards a more engaged humanist practice. It may be that a conference to begin to collectively configure this path, in this place and at this time, is needed in 2017.

We wish you all a warm and wonderful Christmas but as you buy your presents from the various hyper-marts, spare a thought for the sweated labour of the East Asian factory workers who have produced them. And as you prepare for your well-earned and ‘oh too short’ holiday trips, spare a thought for all those good Kiwi children whose parents can’t afford such extravagance. It does not have to be that way. Are we not social workers?  We can and should do something about it.

Merry Christmas!


Child Poverty Monitor Technical Report, 2016.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Gramsci, A. (1971/1997).  Selections from the Prison Notebooks.   New York: International Publishers.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.





8 replies on “Hope for change at close of year”

I really liked this article Ian. You encompassed all that is relevant and why we are social workers
Manuia le kisimasi ma le tausaga fou

Thanks Toalepai – have some rest over the break and come back strong to fight the good fight for another round. Social workers make a difference – we need to assert ourselves more and focus on what it means to stand for social justice in a divided world – and yep we do need to stay humble in the process – lol. Take care and have a happy Christmas with your family. Ian

Tena koe Ian,
A succinct and splendid wero to all. Unfortunately the dominant narrative is spreading wide and far with this government ‘social investment’ package which views social services as ways to achieve budgetary reform with targeted funding. The concept of the ‘social welfare net’ for those needing short or long support has atrophied. Education too is receiving such attention. Educators too are called on to ‘protect’ ‘vulnerable’ children . Assessment has reverted to performatively narrow ‘skills’ to prevent ‘predictive risks’. And as always , it is the Maaori tamariki that are constructed as ‘riskier than most’. Protect and intervene for the sake of long term budgetary concerns ( e.g. Sole parenting in New Zealand: An update on key trends and what helps reduce disadvantage; Rose, N. (2010). ‘Screen and intervene’: governing risky brains. History of the Human Sciences, 23(1), 79-105).
Margaret Stuart

Tena Koe Margaret. Happy Christmas to you and yours. Yep the social investment umbrella is an overall umbrella – fix costly people is the idea and it takes attention away from the economic policies that generate inequality. Alternative voices are now being heard and – the idea that individual responsibility and the price u signals of the market will solve our social ills is tired and discredited – what we must do is develop alternatives – Maori and Tau Iwi. Best wishes for the New Year – Ian

The power of one person can make a difference. Nature balances itself, so too will the social conscience of our people towards poverty. That the resources of the few will be shared so poverty is no longer for any child or family here in Aotearoa or globally ☮

Hi Delaine – a positive thought – when there is social injustice there is resistance but sometimes it takes people to push against the tide and remind us that we can live in better and fairer ways … best wishes, Ian

“The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned” (Another Anotonio Gramsci)

Ae Jade – the Fascists locked Tony up famously to stop his brain working – and that is our freedom – to think – the first illusion to let go of is the idea that inequality and oppression is natural – once we do that we are half way to a better future. Best – Ian

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