Back to the Future (again)

As I get longer in the tooth, I am sometimes accused of repeating myself. Funnily enough this often happens with reference to things that people didn’t much like hearing the first time. For example, the message that social work is complex and contradictory is disquieting when you are looking for some clarity of identity and access to the moral high ground. Nevertheless, social work is often conflicted.

We live and work within a structurally unequal society; we ascribe to an economic rubric which systematically manufactures inequality.

There is a nexus between liberal politics, colonial dispossession and capitalism which is illustrated by historic conflict over land ‘ownership’ and development for private profit: the Ihumātao dispute is a cogent, living, breathing present-day example.

Many social workers appreciate the  nature of this problem but most of us are employed by the state or by Government funded organisations. There  is no direct mandate to address the underlying flaws inherent to the capitalist mode of development or to remedy the modern day  legacy of colonisation. Nevertheless it is important that we are not disabled by our own analysis; resistance is possible and strategies of action are available to us. We can think, we can make our voices heard and we can act in concert with others.

For a start, social workers can get a little caught up in the concept of negotiation, balance and compromise:  the idea that systems can and must be made to function. Sometimes, in reality, systems are fundamentally unjust and new rules of engagement need to be created. Sometimes a shift in power is needed, rather than a process of mediation that persuades the powerful to bend a little – until the next time.

Over ten years ago now (Hyslop, 2007, p. 5), I wrote the following lines in relation to the social and economic context of my conflicted ‘career’ in statutory social work. I believe that this reflection remains relevant today:

Social work inhabits the ideologically contested terrain between the ‘big picture’ and the circumstances of individual lives – public issues and private troubles; between capitalist economics and the human consequences of structural disadvantage (Fox-Harding, 1997; O’Brien, 2001). Within this space the practice gaze is generally directed towards the specific situations and behaviours of individual ‘clients’ and/or ‘client families.’ The crowded state house clusters of Otara and Mangere in the 1980s were built to accommodate the brown proletariat of Māori and Pacific labour demanded by the economic growth of the post-war decades (Schwimmer, 1968). The explicit structural relationship between poverty and wealth in our society is implicitly obscured in orthodox economic discourse (Helibroner & Milberg, 1995). Many families were pushed from the gentrifying suburbs of central Auckland by rising housing costs, and in some cases their social work file notes followed them. Property development and speculation as a means to accumulate private wealth is historically ingrained in the middle New Zealand psyche and comes with this paradox attached.

We need only look around us to see that social structure is embedded in daily life. The big socioeconomic picture has important implications for the experiences of people in the small picture of social work practice with individuals and families.

For a period, in the late 1980s, it appeared that state social work could be part of the solution to the social suffering wrought by the racist practices of the past. One of the concrete recommendations of Puao te Ata Tu envisaged Māori / community oversight of state social work Site offices through the appointment of District Executive Committees. The Social Work Development Plan of 1989 suggested the development of local partnerships with Iwi Māori.

All of this seems dated now and it was, of course, wiped away in the neoliberal tidal wave of the 1990s.

Puao te Ata Tu was concerned with the damage caused by state violence. By 2010 the political pendulum had swung away to an obsession with the damage caused by dangerous families. We seem, now, to be slowly waking up to the flaws in that politically convenient fallacy. The same groundswell that lay behind Puao te Ata Tu is rippling around us once again. In relation to Māori and state care we seem to have come full circle in thirty years, 1989-2019.

As Ranginui Walker (1990) pointed out some years ago, for Māori post-colonial history has been a struggle without end. Old disputes never really go away until they are justly settled.

These same tensions are being revisited in debates over the meaning of recent law reform, policy development and future social work practice in Oranga Tamariki – as canvassed recently in the first of a series of seminars about the relationship between children, families and the state, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington. Have a listen to seminar one here.

You can’t simply move children to whanau without supporting placements and you can’t just save children and leave their parents behind. You can’t ‘fix’ care with Police checks. There are many committed, able and extremely hard-working social workers in the OT system, but the practice mandate is seldom realistic.

The highly modernised and increasingly corporatised Oranga Tamariki may eventually develop to a point where less damaging practice errors are made. However, the key problem of being over-organised by institutional risk remains a central obstacle to be overcome.

Let’s be frank, state social workers will never protect all children from serious harm and OT alone will not deliver social justice for Māori, particularly not with the current model of communications spin and top down development. The latest cure-all concept of ‘co-design’ is not enough to generate systemic change in this environment: some serious practice, management and policy re-thinking is needed. It would be instructive to have a good look at the lessons from the past in this process. Let us hope that the current inquiries result in more than a re-shuffling of the deckchairs.

One thing, at least, is certain – the struggle for social justice will continue. I think that progressive social workers should, can and will find ways of contributing to this imperative, despite the odds.

Image Credit: Internet archive Book Image



Hyslop, I. (2007). Twenty years in an open-necked shirt: A retrospective personal narrative. ANZASW Social Work Review, 19(1), 3–11.

Walker, R. (1990). Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle without End. Auckland: Penguin.



4 replies on “Back to the Future (again)”

Many thanks for including the link to the seminar – good to hear yr getting the word out there….Cheers

Thanks Ian well said.
I agree that the individualising focus of blame repository created by the fog of neoliberalism is somewhat lifting allowing the sorts of systemic critique of structural inequity and its effects that were briefly possible 30 years ago. It does seem extraordinary in retrospect how powerfully the neoliberal Paradigm obscured and silenced other perspectives. It sometimes said that empires have long half-lives, and I do not see the insidious impact of neoliberal losing its influential grip anytime soon. The opportunity lost for social work was for this current government to rip back the curtains and shine light on how the MSD juggernaut is still primarily following a pathway laid down by a neoliberal analysis of the struggles and difficulties of communities. There is some real political courage needed to step back from the sunk cost fallacy and admit the current planned direction for social work does not reflect anti-oppressive values. It is tricky to identify where a central voice for social might speak from. Hence, I tend to think that all we social workers with a small voice need to find ways to yet again assert, celebrate, and do our best to adopt in our practices the powerful vision contained within Puao Te Ata Tu.
Keep up the good work!

Cheers David – A bit like Te Tiriti, PtAT refuses to go away because the promise has not been delivered. This report highlighted the destructive consequences of institutional racism and, more specifically, the cultural damage wrought by the state care system – but this vision was never going to be achieved by whanau responsibility without real political and material empowerment – so, it appears that we are back at square one. I agree that, where possible, social workers – and the organisations which represent us – need to be more than by standers in deciding what will happen next.

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