Re-Imagining devolution – PUAO-TE-ATA-TU revisited

It is timely to engage openly with some of the tensions at the heart of the social work child protection project. Everyone will tell you child protection is a complex field, but this begs a related question – who defines this complexity: complex in what ways and according to who?

I think it is important to recognise that questions can be posed from differing perspectives and pitched at differing levels of analysis. However, the task in front of us is to bring insights together and to begin to weave a new way forward. I will argue here that the messages present in Puao te Ata Tu remain clear and compelling. These messages point to the need to critically re-examine the concept of self-determination for Māori as it relates to the question of child protection.

Let’s pick at some of the threads of the child protection social work knot. For a start the Western social work paradigm grew out of engagement with urban poverty in unregulated industrial capitalist societies – the perceived threat of the underclass poor. In many ways this is a historical constant. Joanne Warner (2015) puts it as follows:

Since its earliest incarnations, social work has been inextricably tied with the complex and contradictory attitudes towards people living in poverty since the 19th Century. Of particular relevance … is the long history of political concerns with the moral threat that the undeserving poor have been judged to pose to wider society.

Over time this emphasis has carried eugenic, racist and classist overtones – often linked with supposedly scientific understandings of underclass reproduction. In the Aotearoa-New Zealand context the recent Expert Advisory Panel process was cut from this cloth – linking future economic cost with family-centred trauma and social failure: the notion of early permanent safe and loving care to ‘stop the rot’ generated by feral families – that society can be reformed one family at a time.

This was a very disturbing policy shift when contrasted with the messages from Puao te Ata Tu – some of which were written into the CYP & F Act, 1989 (now the OT Act). These messages were born of concern with the consequences of colonisation and, more specifically, the damage wrought for individuals, whanau and hapu through the process of state care. In 2017 I described this turn as follows:

Between 1989 and the present, the racialised child protection narrative has transformed from a focus on the damage done to Maori children by state violence to the cost visited upon the state and wider society by dangerous families.                  (Hyslop, 2017, p. 1809)

We also need to ask ourselves whether social justice for Māori can be delivered within the framework of neoliberal capitalism. There is a fundamental cultural and political disjunction. Liberalism is the political vehicle for liberal capitalism, revolving as it does around the concept of individual rights to private property. As highlighted in the appendices to Puao te Ata Tu, Māori are a collective tribal people with a much different (some would say diametrically opposed) political and spiritual cosmology:

Those early Pakeha power-brokers understood very clearly what they were doing. It was summed up by the distinguished 19th century politician, Sir Francis Dillon-Bell when he said, “The first plank of public policy must be to stamp out the beastly communism of the Maori.”

Puao te Ata Tu set out to find a way of addressing this thorny question of self-determination within the liberal colonial state. Although not explicitly relied on, the approach is wholly consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Let us have a look at what the document says. The PtAT report is concerned with remedying the disempowerment of Māori: “We have been confronted with a Maori perception of issues which are deeply rooted and structural, issues which combine to produce an Aotearoa in 1986 in which Maori people are overwhelmingly in a state of dependency – mokai in their own land.”

The architects of the report explicitly argued that this lack of political and cultural autonomy was linked with economic deprivation. It is, after all, as plain as a pike staff: “While mindful of our terms or reference, we nevertheless believe that most of the difficulties Maori clients have with the Department are reflections of the socio-economic status of Maori in the community …”

And the remedies? These are the first two key over-arching recommendations:

Recommendation 1“to attack all forms of cultural racism by … (b) Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Maori people in all policies developed for the future of New Zealand.  

Recommendation 2“to attack and eliminate deprivation and alienation by: (a) Allocating an equitable share of resources. (b) Sharing power and authority over the use of resources. (c) Ensuring legislation which recognizes social, cultural and economic values of all cultural groups and especially Maori people ….”

Read the words – eliminate deprivation and alienation, an equitable distribution of resources, sharing power and authority (!!!).

Lastly from PtAT, the report states the following things in specific reference to child protection practice: 1. “At the heart of the issue is a profound misunderstanding or ignorance of the place of the child in Maori society and its relationship with whanau, hapu, iwi structures” (Preface, p. 7). And 2. “The guiding principle in the current legislation is that the welfare of the child shall be regarded as the first and paramount consideration. There need be no inherent conflict between that and the customary preference for the maintenance of children within the hapu…”. (p.29)

And the state adopted all of this, right? Well, no, not really. The local monitoring committees lasted five minutes, the vision was not resourced. Real power was not conceded. The whole deal was run over by neoliberal capitalism and state austerity from the 1990s.

So, what is to be done with state social work for Māori? There are answers at different levels. The recent New South Wales Report into Aboriginal children in out of home care suggests greater transparency, non-secrecy, yarning, building relationships, more intuition and judgement, less risk aversion and less ritualistic compliance. This would be start in our context! The NSW Report suggests that ritualized cultural recognition – mantras and forms of words on paper – work against real engagement with families. I think the same applies here.

The NSW review reports that social workers feel overwhelmed and misunderstood. It is, of course, similar here. At times child protection can be a hell of a job. I know this. But what about the lived reality of whanau and hapu – their narratives, their historical wisdom – who is really being misunderstood here?

And on the broader level the Pakeha liberal state needs to hear the call for self-determination this time. Yes, it is not easy – after all the state keeps telling Māori that child protection is complicated, right? However, we need to really take the devolution of child protection services seriously. What are the implications? What are the models needed? What resources are required? What needs to happen in order to eliminate deprivation and alienation, ensure an equitable distribution of resources, really share power and authority? How can plans made be best implemented and monitored. How can governance arrangements be made to work within a Treaty framework?

Are existing Iwi and state structures fit for purpose? These are questions Māori are asking as I write. Can I suggest that we make the effort to get this right this time? We may not get another chance.

Finally, I think it is important to repeat a message I have tried to convey before. Child maltreatment is not a problem that is primarily located in the behaviour of deficient individuals. The system adopted in anglophone countries – the design of expert (predominantly social work) systems for the identification of dangerous families – is conceptually flawed in that it detracts from addressing the deeper causes of child abuse. In societies that have come to be riven by social inequality and economic exploitation, the answers are primarily political: a more equitable distribution of income, adequate housing, equality of access to health, education and community-centered universal social services. A dose of middle-class well-being mantras won’t cut it I am afraid.

                                                                                               Image Credit: Archives New Zealand


Davis, M. (2019). Family is Culture – Review Report. Independent Review of Aboriginal Children and Young People in OOHC.

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand:  A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800-1817.

Puao te Ata Tu (day-break): The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. (1988). Wellington, New Zealand.

Warner, J. (2015). The Emotional Politics of Social Work and Child Protection. Bristol: Policy Press.

4 replies on “Re-Imagining devolution – PUAO-TE-ATA-TU revisited”

Clear analysis of our current system and it’s historical foundations. A very real risk or contradiction of the approach of the current Govt system to address ‘Treaty’ issues (section 7aa) is to impose a ‘solution’ giving lip service to partnership or power-sharing. This only continues to confuse and prevent authentic responses.

Cheers David – appreciate your input. Yep, always a bit tricky talking to this stuff as Pakeha, but you know I reckon the more people talk about it the better. It does also worry me that even with four current child protection inquiries popping up – involving differing interests and motivations – that we won’t ultimately get a response from the Crown that grapples with the deep hard basket issues that I have tried to highlight here.

There are intersections – inequality and colonisation are root problems – and it is nga mokai Maori who are dragged into the CP system rather than Maori per se.

I don’t know what the Crown talking to Iwi really means in this context – there is plenty I don’t know – but I do know that the EAP process had radical ideological flaws and that we should have had the historic abuse inquiry prior to reform. State bureaucracies have a lot of trouble with the concept of speaking the truth and a huge stake in controlling the narrative.

We have a chance to get this right – or as right as it is likely to get – and the first step should be to try and get the process of reimagining and rebuilding right. Real transformation cant be rushed.


I was in the room when Puao o te Ata Tu was signed/endorsed by the Chairperson of Community Volunteers in Palmerston North.
Its powerful messages and analysis have been consistently ignored by successive governments because to take heed of it would interfere with the neoliberal agenda and would require power sharing with Tangata Whenua and all those marginilised by the policies of the State.
Registered social workers are tied to the State- our voices (mine) about cultural and social justice are quiet – there is no revolution.
The voices of the “deviant poor” to lift benefit rates are not heard. They – us – are not trusted to “manage” their lives. They continue to have to “beg” at Work and Income, Foodbanks, Breakfast Clubs in schools, Shared meals at Churches and the plethora of other charities designed to screen the “deserving and undeserving” poor and make the rest of the community feel good. There are few or no opportunities for those most marginilised to get together to discuss what happens for them (no Workers Unemployed Rights Movement, Unions, WEA (Workers Educational Associations – for we are all workers) or, if they do, their experiences go into yet another report to beauracratics who will never be moved to storm the TV Newsrooms and there is no “storming of the barricades” or “sit ins” at Parliament supported by our noble profession. The foodbanks and the charities need to shut down so Jacinda has no place to go except to trust that the poor know exactly what to do with a significant benefit increase and that if the whanau (especially the mothers and fathers parenting on their own) are looked after the kids, generally, will be all right.

Yep I think you are right Adrienne – in many ways we have moved back to a charity model and away from the right (as citizens) to participate and belong – it is a model that goes back to the 1834 Poor Law doctrine of ‘less eligibility’ – don’t give them enough to live decently on and drive them into insecure low wage work.

This shouldn’t surprise us because in neo(new)liberal politics – as in the old liberal politics of the Nineteenth Century – poverty is constructed as a ‘spur’ that drives the lower end of the labour market.

I don’t have easy answers about how best to roll back this kind of oppressive regime and the grossly unequal outcomes it produces – except the need to keep a politics of resistance alive – educate, organise and agitate for a socially just (socialist) system of ownership, distribution and development.


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