Do we really all hold a sacred place for what is a fundamentally exploitative, unequal and unfair practice? Dr Ian Hyslop certainly doesn’t think so.

The Labour-led coalition Government has provided some respite from the overt demonising of those who are excluded from what Simon Bridges describes as the “Kiwi way of life”. This way of life, it seems, is epitomised by tax-free speculation in the private rental property market.

Is this our communal cultural lode-stone? Unfettered profits from investment in rental properties? Really? Do we really all hold a sacred place for what is a fundamentally exploitative, unequal and unfair practice? Give me strength! It has been pleasant to have a break from all that banality about “good” mum and dad “Kiwis” which John Key was so fond of.

The interests of good Kiwis that Bridges has been talking about are in fact the interests of a privileged class of people. Conservative political parties have erroneously conflated interests of private property owners with the well-being of us all since early colonial land grab times. It is high time to stop milking the politics of fear in the golf clubs of an imaginary middle New Zealand, Simon.

If we look around more carefully, it becomes clear there is much for social workers and their organisations to be disconcerted about, locally and globally. It is difficult not to be disturbed by how acquiescent our profession has become. I can understand why, but it remains disconcerting all the same. First, a local concern – the recent apparent spike in the uplifting of children by statutory social workers. As Dr Emily Keddell pointed out in a Re-Imagining Social Work post:

The child protection reforms of 2015 were framed around several key issues, three of which were: care, intensive intervention and prevention services. While there have been substantial developments in transition out of care and support of foster carers, much-needed attention to the far larger group of children notified or investigated but never removed – those potentially requiring ‘intensive intervention’ or ‘prevention’ – has yet to eventuate. The rhetoric of permanency in ‘safe and loving homes’, and the social investment discourse that accompanied it, appear to have culminated, in the meantime, in more children entering care.

Conservative political parties have erroneously conflated interests of private property owners with the well-being of us all since early colonial land grab times.

These child protection reforms came out of the Expert Panel set up by the Ministry of Social Development in 2015 with a mandate to transform the lives of New Zealand children. As I have argued at length, the basis of the Expert Panel reform process was fundamentally flawed. Statutory social work was critiqued as a failing care system rather than an over-stretched and under-resourced statutory social work system operating in a neoliberal context of escalating disadvantage and inequality.

The panel recommended earlier permanent removal of children from birth families unable to provide the required care. Family-centred reproduction of trauma was identified as the problem rather than the economic context that reproduces social suffering at the level of individual and family life (“good” mum and dad investors excluded – see above).

The wider social investment policy framework was rooted in neoliberal economic dogma – that failing citizens need to be dealt with because of the future economic costs to the social security, health and prison systems.

The number of children in state care continues to grow. An apparent increase in the rate of infants and young children entering care is particularly alarming, and Māori are bearing the brunt of this. The process for the development of preventative and/or intensive intervention services remains unclear. Oranga Tamariki has become as transparent as a slate roof.

There has been a dramatic injection of corporate culture at Oranga Tamariki along with unprecedented employment of managers with business or government backgrounds unrelated to social work. Now, I understand how colonising risk-aversion can be. I realise the work is tricky and some children need immediate safety. However, anecdotally, I hear of social workers who are poorly supported and of practice with whānau which is woefully inadequate.

Child welfare work is not a corporate activity and is not an exact science, but there is significant expertise in the NGO sector around skills, strategies and programmes for working relationally and cooperatively alongside high needs families. Oranga Tamariki would do well to engage with non-government organisations in a process of genuine partnership.

There is also a growing body of academic research around ways to re-shape state social work for family support rather than the child rescue police. This is where practice development should be taking us and this work can be grounded in social work knowledge rather than the discredited ideology of our expert panel. This body of research should be engaged with, rather than relegated to the status of inconvenient dissent.

And while I am at it – the global picture. It seems clear our tender young planet is currently prey to an accelerating process of climate change. This daunting reality generates some new imperatives for social workers committed to social justice. The worst effects are almost always reserved for the least powerful. Given that environmental degradation is inextricably tied to the capitalist mode of development – the escalating industrial production and sale of consumable products nexus – we are faced with a political problem on an unprecedented scale.

The geopolitical tensions between East and West, North and South, mean the prosperous world is increasingly becoming a fenced compound to deter the perceived threat of migrants and refugees: Trump’s actual and metaphorical wall of fear and loathing. The choice is stark. The mad market-driven juggernaut rapidly eating our future must stop or we may disappear as a viable species.

Apart from concentrating on politically neutral and meaningless resolutions about the importance of human relationships, what are our global social work bodies really doing to confront what may be the final crisis of modernity? I get it that we are not the most powerful profession in the world. And I know the daily grind is tough. But, can I ask you to think about what a profession that is really committed to social justice in our time might look like?

Ultimately, a much different world must be our aim, not simply more harmonious relationships and better services for the poor. The struggle continues whether we are weary or not, and as a wise person reminded me the other day, we do not always live to see the fruits of the changes that we strive for.

* A version of this opinion piece was published in Re-imagining Social Work February 27, 2019.

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