Will we listen this time?

I have read the report of the Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki (Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti) with great interest, not least because of the mana carried by the members of the governance group. It is a bold Report. Much of the message is not new but the urgency and energy of the wero is palpable: ‘The inquiry did not have the luxury of time, but neither do our whānau’ (Foreword, p.6).

The strengths of this Report are reminiscent of those of an earlier Inquiry Report delivered in 1986 by a certain Ministerial Advisory Committee; a Māori history of the historical experience of post-colonial welfare and a privileging of the voices of whanau at the sharp end of state child protection intervention.

The persuasive concept of modernisation is an ideological screen which has been used historically to assimilate Māori. It has also been employed by successive governments throughout the English-speaking world to cajole problem populations to adapt to the changing economic and social rhythms of liberal capitalism. In 1960 the Hunn Report ‘argued that Māori who resented the pressure to conform to the “Pakeha mode of life” needed to understand that this was an inevitable consequence of becoming modern…’ (Report, p. 28). Modernisation has long been code for helping, directing, remoralising and disciplining the systemically disadvantaged in class societies – and for repackaging inequality as individual and family failure (Jones, 1983). Social work perennially struggles with its role in this contradictory space.

The Third Way politics of Tony Blair and New Labour in the U.K in the 2000s (and in the Clark Labour-led governments in Aotearoa New Zealand) were predicated on the concept of modernisation: ‘If New Labour presented its strategy in terms of the Third Way, the manner it characterized its approach was in terms of a process of modernization, whereby the key elements of the state and civil society would be renewed to make them fit for purpose for the globalised economy’ (Parton, 2014, p.33). Most recently, of course, our Expert Panel review process was pitched as “Modernising Child Youth and Family”. In truth it was about saving future cost to the state through muscular child protection. The spike in the forced removal of children from young Māori women living in challenging circumstances has been a direct intended outcome of this exercise.

The current form of the Oranga Tamariki Act is, to be fair, as much an outcome of opposition to the racist and classist ideas that underpin the neoliberal social investment paradigm as it is the Expert Panel recommendations. In policy and practice there are now signs of systemic change; a turning away from risk-averse rescue dominated practice, germinal partnering agreements with Iwi in differing forms and co-design initiatives for service improvement. Large ships are hard to turn. The question is whether the pace of reform is fast enough and the vison radical enough? The answer in this Māori Review is clear as a bell: it is ‘no’.

The key issue is about autonomy for Māori. Child protection systems vary across the western world. Parton (2014, p.6) cites Rachel Heatherington’s (2006, p. 43) insightful reflection on the reasons for these differences: ‘Although culture, structure, and professional ideology all interact to shape the functioning of child welfare systems, their effects are not necessarily equally powerful. There is some evidence from the comparative studies that culture may be the most powerful factor.’ Parton further explains: ‘By culture, she meant the nexus of views, understandings, habits of mind, patterns of living and use of language that are built up in a community, nation or state by a shared history, experiences and social circumstances in which people live.’

In Aotearoa New Zealand the state has always had great difficulty grasping the fact that Māori do not subscribe to the dominant politics and economics of liberal individualism. As the Report foreword sets out: ‘Caring and supporting our whānau in a ‘Māori way’ has not, and will never, work in an environment that does not understand our worldview and our ‘ways of knowing’. It is us as Māori – those of us with lived experience and understand the social and cultural nuances of our communities – who are best placed to provide the care, support and services that our whānau need.’

The final and greatest strength of the Report is in hearing and giving voice to the experiences of whānau on the receiving end of the system. The messages are clear, emotive, disturbing and compelling. The official narrative reflex is often to marginalise such accounts – after all these are the words of those with little power – those who have lost their children, experienced violence, endured social suffering. But, of course, this is exactly why such voices should be heeded. Official bureaucratic accounts are no less biased. They have their own discursive rules and narrative blinkers.

This Report stridently and passionately demands fundamental reform: a fully funded wrap around service for Māori; a review to inform structural and legislative change in OT; in the longer run a ‘for Māori with Māori’ devolved social service system, including care and protection services. The ways forward set out in the Report are challenging but they must be engaged with this time. Some will question the apparent bias towards an expanded Whānau Ora service model. Others will identify the risks potentially associated with a reduction of state responsibility.

Government Ministers, OT Managers and many social workers would not welcome another system review, even if it is the review that should have happened in the first place. Much depends on how any such review is carried out. In terms of party politics in an election year we are also at a critical juncture and it will be fascinating to see how this plays out. I for one believe we must re-engage with this debate – it is merely another chapter in the long road of struggle for justice for Maori and we ignore this at our collective peril.  

Image credit: Kathy Cassidy


Jones, C. (1983). State Social Work and the Working Class. London: MacMillan.

Parton, Nigel (2014). The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

2 replies on “Will we listen this time?”

Tena koe Ian

Thanks for your post. I agree that our current colonising approach to social work practice (and social work education) leaves me as the coloniser, ever thinking – how to ‘decolonise’ my practice as a social work educator; and how do we both challenge and inspire the broader profession to do so?

I was at a recent hui here in Òtautahi about social works scope of practice. What I noted wasn’t voiced was an ugly truth about current social work practice. Historical and current practices still involve doing things too people, and on people, neoliberal practices that are not mana enhancing, practices that are colonising, oppressive; practices of enacting social control.

The question I was left with is – should practices of social control be part of the domain of social work practice? Should they be part of our scope of practice?

It would be naive (and a bit Utopian) to think that society won’t need the likes of human service regulators and human service police; but maybe these functions and their non-mana enhancing, colonising, and oppressive practices need to be located outside a re-imagined future of social work practice?

In re-imagining and re-envisioning a future decolonised social work practice, maybe the function of social control should sit elsewhere? – maybe this practice doesn’t belong to a ‘re-imagined’ discourse of future social work practice?

Nga mihi

Jimi McKay

Kia ora Jim

Good question e hoa

I don’t pretend to be the expert here. Child protection work can be hellish tricky and very emotive but I do think that you are very right to identify that we tend to lose sight of the controlling history of state social work in the stories we tell ourselves. This history is mostly about intervening in the lives of working class people, particularly people on the margins of the ‘respectable’ working class.

You might get a bit of this in social work school but you won’t get it in most of your workplace memos. Also, it aint just history, it happening in the now and it is probably intensifying.

We have had a lot of useful research lately reminding us of this uncomfortable structuring reality. What this means for social work futures in societies obsessed with liberal fantasies of individual responsibility is very much the question on the table as far as I am concerned.

Inequality is deeply ingrained in the structure of our ‘good Kiwis life ‘ and it will continue to be economically and socially reproduced unless we change the future. In a settler society like ours, indigenous people are over-represented on these social margins – throw a complex racist and gendered overlay and you get processes of double or triple ‘othering’ if you like – and you get predictable outcomes, right?

For mine I think the aspiration of “by Maori with Maori” expressed in this review is animated by a comparable sort of analysis – not so much breaking behavioural cycles in whanau, but breaking cycles of state repression. I am not sure that this is the whole answer but I can see where it is coming from .

Should social work get out of hard end child protection? – Probably not – and the system probably can’t be made perfect, but it could be done more carefully and thoughtfully. This doesn’t mean we should deny complexity, the reality of abuse and the importance of child safety but we need to take the blinkers off and see the whole picture – the wider politics of child protection in a class society.

Saving children through narrow threat-based forensic social work and the magic wand of safety and love was a pretty dismal vision and hopefully we are moving on from that now. Turning things on their head and looking at the structural faults of our society rather than the shortcomings of people who become our clients is, I think, always a really useful place to start from. Can social work play a role in rising to this challenge? Which way do you think the wind is blowing Jimi?

Pardon the rant and thanks very much for your comment.


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