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date: 08 December 2023

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Australia and Pacific Islandsfree

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Australia and Pacific Islandsfree

  • Kylie AglliasKylie AglliasUniversity of Newcastle, Australia
  •  and Mel GrayMel GrayUniversity of Newcastle, Australia


Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are among the world's most liveable countries, despite the increase in relative poverty and the negative effect of past policies on indigenous populations. Social work is well established and is social-justice oriented. Social work is an emerging profession in the Pacific Islands, where economic and social potential is often hampered by political instability and a lack of sustainable economic management, rapid urbanization, and unemployment.


  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

References updated and sections expanded to reflect recent research and data.

This region comprises Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. Melanesia includes Papua New Guinea and neighboring islands north and east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean, Polynesia lies to the east and Micronesia to the northeast. The designation Australasia is sometimes applied to all the lands and islands of the Pacific Ocean lying between the equator and latitude 47° south. The most populated countries in this area include Australia with an estimated population of 24.7 million, Papua New Guinea with 8.4 million, Aotearoa-New Zealand with 4.7 million, Fiji with 0.9 million, and the Solomon Islands with 0.6 million (Worldometers, 2018). Across this region, and within each country, many different cultures, languages, and heterogenous groups exist, so it is difficult to comment accurately on issues and perspectives in a collective sense. This entry focuses on countries where social work is established or emerging, and where appropriate literature exists: Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Samoa.

Economic and Political Features

For more than two centuries, Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands have been entwined in complex regional arrangements and processes. These relationships, borne of large-scale colonization, endured through post-World War II decolonization, and into a period that could be defined by Australia and New Zealand’s neocolonial dominance. However, Lawson (2017) suggested this is too simplistic a picture of current relations, with Pacific Island countries increasingly bringing local issues, indigenous perspectives, and regional leadership to the fore.

The political system of the Commonwealth of Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand is a representative parliamentary democracy with a legal system based on English Common Law. The reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi (an agreement signed between Maori peoples and the British Crown in 1840) continues to exert significant sociopolitical influence and is recognized legally in many Acts of Parliament. It effectively embeds bicultural principles, processes, and policies in government actions, including redress for historic breaches of the Treaty. Keynesian economic principles inform Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand's postwar economic system though; since the 1980s, both countries have seen significant economic reform characterized by the privatization of the public sector, the removal of protectionism, industrial reform, and an internationalization of the economy with the floating of the exchange rate. Economic rationalism or neoliberal reform has persisted in various forms under successive governments (Pusey, 2018; Rankin, 2016). Economic surveys highlight Australia’s strong economy, which has experienced 25 consecutive years of output growth (OECD, 2017a). The economy is rebalancing as it reaches the end of a commodity boom. Economic challenges include youth unemployment, gender gaps, greenhouse emissions, and an ageing population (OECD, 2017a). Aotearoa-New Zealand's economy has also performed well over the past two decades with low public debt and a balanced budget (OECD, 2017b). The economy has been more vulnerable to negative world events than Australia’s and challenges include low productivity growth and a shifting labor market (OECD, 2017b).

The Pacific Islands are low- to lower middle-income economies with economic challenges, including limited natural resources, unplanned urbanization, poor economic growth, poverty, narrowly based economies, distance from and access to global markets, and high unemployment (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006; World Bank, 2018). Pacific Island economies are vulnerable to natural, political, and economic volatility and dependence on foreign assistance and aid remains strong (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme [SPREP], 2016; World Bank, 2018).

Gross domestic product per capita in U.S. dollars equaled $54,069 in Australia, $40,233 in Aotearoa-New Zealand, $5,197 in Fiji, $4,214 in Samoa, and $2,436 in Papua New Guinea (United Nations Statistic Division, 2017). In Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, around 70% of the labor force works in the service industry (CIA, 2018). While most Pacific Islanders are employed in agriculture, tourism service industries account for a larger proportion of GDP in some countries, such as Fiji and Samoa. Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand’s major export commodities include minerals, wheat, meat, machinery, and transport equipment. Major imports include motor vehicles, machinery, electronic equipment, computers, and petroleum (CIA, 2018). The Pacific Islands have significant economic potential through the export of natural commodities, such as agricultural products, including sugar, coconut oil, fish, minerals, and petroleum. Many of these industries require better management, governance, infrastructure, and sustainable practices (CIA, 2018; Commonwealth of Australia, 2006). They rely on the import of manufactured goods, including food and petroleum products, industrial machinery, and electronic equipment (CIA, 2018).

Environmental issues are of growing economic and political concern in this region, including increasing urbanization, land clearing for housing and for agriculture, pollution, the depletion of natural resources, threats to existing ecosystems, and climate change (CSRIO & Bureau of Meteorology, 2015; Ministry for the Environment, 2019). The effects of climate change in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand include, but are not limited to, higher sea and land temperatures (including heat-related records in Australia), altered wind and rain patterns (including lower rainfall and extreme rain events), fewer—but more intense—tropical cyclones, reductions in soil moisture, and increases in ocean acidity. The frequency and severity of events, such as floods, droughts, and fires has increased, and is predicted to worsen (CSRIO & Bureau of Meteorology, 2015; Ministry for the Environment, 2019). Natural disasters have considerable socioeconomic impacts in these regions, particularly for rural, remote, and vulnerable populations.

Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world. Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have some of the highest per capita carbon emissions. In fact, there has been consistent domestic and international concern about Australia’s level of commitment to climate action and its capacity to meet Paris Agreement obligations (Merzian, Quicke, Bennett, Campbell, & Swann, 2019). Research shows that increasingly Australians and Aotearoa-New Zealanders are acknowledging the impacts of climate change, supporting renewable energy sources over fossil fuels and demanding that their governments take the lead on climate action (Merzian et al., 2019). Concerns have been enacted through public protests, such as the School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion.

The environmental situation in the Pacific Islands is also dire, with predictions that rising sea levels and extreme weather events, such as flood, cyclones, droughts, and heatwaves will escalate (Storlazzi et al., 2018; WHO, 2015). While rising sea levels are likely to impact the habitation and existence of lower lying atolls across decades, disaster-related issues are being felt more immediately. Disasters cause population displacement, deaths, injuries, psychological trauma, and reduced access to clean water (WHO, 2015). Social, economic, and population health issues are numerous and multifaceted, including the spread of infectious disease, mental health disorders, food insecurity, unemployment, threats to community cohesion, and excessive demands on existing human service systems (WHO, 2015). These impacts are felt more acutely in vulnerable populations, such as young and older people, and those with disabilities and on low incomes. Leaders of many Pacific Island nations have declared a climate crisis, and consistently request larger emitters to take action. In recent times, criticisms have been levelled at Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand’s climate-change policies, and particularly Australia’s conservative stance on fossil-fuel usage and carbon-emission reduction (Lawson, 2017; Merzian et al., 2019).

Finally, immigration is a core socioeconomic and political issue in this region. Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand claim to be “countries of immigrants” and their population statistics attest this: Their net migration rate is high compared to the United Kingdom or the United States, for example (Stats New Zealand, 2019). The Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement is a bilateral agreement allowing the flow of Australian and Aotearoa-New Zealand citizens between the respective countries. The growth of Pacific Islander populations working and residing in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand continues, and there is a flow-on effect of travel and remittances across borders. Shifting immigration trends have seen increased numbers of immigrants arriving from Asian and middle-Eastern regions, and this has been accompanied by some politicization of immigration issues, and anti-immigration populism in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand. Australia’s stance on asylum seekers, particularly its offshore detention policy, continues to attract significant domestic and international condemnation.

Social Conditions

Population health outcomes in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are among the best in the world, though these vary widely in the Pacific Islands. Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand were ranked very high on the Human Development Index in 2015, coming in second and thirteenth, respectively (UNDP, 2016). Fiji and Samoa ranked high, at 91 and 104, respectively. In contrast, Papua New Guinea ranked low at 154 of 188 countries. Average life expectancy ranged from 83 years in Australia, 82 years in Aotearoa-New Zealand, 74 years in Samoa, 70 years in Fiji, and 63 years in Papua New Guinea (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2016). The under-five mortality rate (per 1,000 live births) was four in Australia, six in Aotearoa-New Zealand, 18 in Samoa, 22 in Fiji, and 57 in Papua New Guinea (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2016). Mean years of schooling varied across the region as follows: Australia 13.3, Aotearoa-New Zealand 12.5, Fiji 10.5, Samoa 10.3, and Papua New Guinea 4.3 (UNDP, 2016).

Poorer socioeconomic conditions and outcomes are evident for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) populations and the Aotearoa-New Zealand Maori populations. Negative differences are evident in the life expectancy, morbidity, socioeconomic status, literacy levels, and employment rates of indigenous peoples, particularly those in Australia (ABS, 2013, 2016; OECD, 2017a, 2017b; Wilkinson & Jeram, 2016). While there is some evidence that indigenous incomes are growing faster than non-indigenous incomes, this obscures actual levels and pockets of extreme poverty in remote and rural populations (Markham & Biddle, 2016).

The most immediate social issue in many of the Pacific Islands is unemployment and under-employment, due to a lack of economic development, a young and rapidly increasing population, limited land for agriculture, and a decline in forestry due to overlogging (ILO, 2018; Jones, 2012). Rapid urbanization commenced in many countries following independence (1960–1980s), creating informal settlements characterized by poor sanitation, excessive overcrowding, and extreme poverty (Jones, 2012; SPREP, 2016). These conditions are often associated with higher rates of communicable diseases and social problems, such as crime (Jones, 2012; SPREP, 2016).

Social Policy and Welfare Services

One of the most distinctive themes of the Australian workers’ welfare state has been its focus on guaranteeing the wages of workers. In Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, income support is redistributed through the income tax system, which acts as a safety net for the most disadvantaged (AIHW, 2017; MSD, 2014). This sits alongside a range of universal services aimed at supporting a basic standard of healthcare and education. Specific welfare or community services are delivered in categories, such as aged care, homelessness and social housing, disability, youth justice, and child protection and family support (AIHW, 2017, MSD, 2014). National, state, and local governments and territories deliver community services, often in conjunction with approved providers, including for-profit and not-for-profit nongovernment organizations (AIHW, 2017; MSD, 2014). Neoliberal economic policy in these countries has led to the privatization of government welfare services and state institutions, and the stricter policing of targeted populations. Additionally, the policy emphasis on individual responsibility and mutual obligation in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand has failed to distribute wealth and social support evenly. Relative poverty in Australia increased from 12.5% in 2010 to 13.3% in 2016 (ACOSS, 2014, 2016), and income inequality remains (OECD, 2016).

The myth of equality is evident in the marginalization of remote and rural inhabitants and rising poverty for particular groups, such as older people, sole parents, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, and the un- or under-employed (ACOSS, 2016; Wilkinson & Jeram, 2016). Ongoing social issues in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand include housing affordability, increasing suicide, domestic violence, incarceration rates, and the misuse of licit and illicit drugs (ABS, 2016, 2017; AIHW, 2016; Crichton-Hill, 2016; Department of Corrections, 2017; Parliament of Australia, 2015; Stats New Zealand, 2018). Notable social policy developments in Australia include the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) (commencing 2013), which offers individualized support to people with a permanent and significant disability, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2017.

Most disconcerting to social service providers has been the failure of the Australian government to acknowledge and address the traumatic intergenerational effects of past policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the over-representation of indigenous children in the child protection system. The dispossession and colonization of Australia’s first peoples included massacres, slavery, imprisonment, forced removal, and resettlement in missions, the introduction of disease, and ecological destruction. Forcible child removal practices were borne of racist ideologies and situated within separation and assimilation policies and legislation from the start of the 20th century. Generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children were removed (primarily between 1910 and 1970). In 2008, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a historic apology to the “Stolen Generations,” acknowledging the legacy of such practices, and heralded a significant step forward in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal race relations, though this has not translated to significant socioeconomic improvements.

Traditional approaches to social welfare in the Pacific Islands prioritize culturally defined social structures. For example, Pacific cultures emphasize the importance of family, respect, and understanding one’s role within the communal and relational structure (Galea’i, 2013; Mila-Schaaf, 2006; Ravulo, 2019). Indeed, kinship practices promote conditions of “reciprocity, cooperation, and shared responsibility among biological and social ‘kin’” (Dames, Hasugulayag, Natividad, & Scwhwab, 2013, p. 184). While traditional and indigenous arrangements continue to provide stability and support for day-to-day welfare, different colonial administrations, policy agendas, locations, and political agreements exert variable influences (Furuto, 2013; Ravulo, 2019). Contemporary governmental arrangements are rooted in the reallocation of limited taxes to welfare services and often sit alongside philanthropic and nongovernment provision (usually reliant on international funding). Social issues include urbanization, dependency, unemployment, rapid population growth, increased crime, child abuse, domestic violence, substance use, and suicide (ISS, 2012; Jones, 2012; SREP, 2016). These challenges, combined with the influence of globalization, have contributed to the recent emergence of more formalized systems of social service and, indeed, social work in these regions.

Role of Social Work

Social work in Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands is unique in several important respects. First, despite welfare reform, professional discourse has remained overtly critical and social justice oriented to the extent that some of the major writers on critical social work and human rights emanate from Australia (for example, Allan, Pease, & Briskman, 2003, 2009; Briskman, Latham, & Goddard, 2008; Fook, 2002; Healy, 2000, 2014; Ife, 1997, 2012 Napier & Fook, 2000; Pease, Goldingay, Hosken, & Nipperess, 2016). Secondly, Australasia is a territory colonized by immigrants who supplanted the values and cultures of the indigenous peoples who have always lived there. While politically Aotearoa-New Zealand has made important advances in Maori relations and policies, Australia's political history on indigenous relations has been more ambivalent, even though public discourse embraces diversity and advocates a policy of multiculturalism.

There is increasing acknowledgement that Western models are not only inadequate in work with Indigenous populations across this region but also have the potential to perpetuate colonialist ideologies and replicate oppressive historic practices. Thus, there is an interesting and emerging literature in Australasia on indigenous social work and cultural diversity. This work is of intense interest to those concerned with culturally relevant social work practice (Bennett, Green, Gilbert, & Bessarab, 2013; Briskman, 2014; Gray, Coates, & Yellow Bird, 2008; Gray, Coates, Yellow Bird, & Hetherington, 2013; Lynn, 2001; Mafile'o, 2004; Mafile’o & Vakalahi, 2016; Ravulo, 2019; Rowe, Baldry, & Earles, 2015; Walsh-Taipata, 2004; Ward, 2006). While Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand remain the main centers of social work in the region, through international social work activities emanating from these centers, they have had an impact on social work in the surrounding Asia-Pacific region and internationally. There is a growing exchange of ideas through Asia-Pacific networks, recently established regionally focused journals, and subsequent publications. Social work with Pacific and Torres Strait Island Peoples has developed with communities on the mainland, for example, with Tongan people living in Aotearoa-New Zealand (Mafile'o, 2004).

Debates as to whose responsibility it is to care for vulnerable and marginalized groups account for the fact that there has never been a higher demand for graduates alongside a low level of interest in becoming social workers among school leavers. Government policy changes have meant there are fewer mature-age students enrolling in university generally and social work in particular. Social work is in a state of flux nationally, and there is a widespread push toward evidence-based practice within healthcare and the potential for private practice in the fields of mental health and aged care, which is new to Australia. With regard to social work education, there are 32 accredited social work programs in Australia and 17 in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Social work education has a long history in both countries, with formal social work education available since the 1940s (Camilleri, 2005; Nash, 1998).

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) was established in 1946. Social work is based firmly on a professional model that has been reinforced in recent years by the government's position, stemming from its competition policy, which states that professions should be self-regulating. Thus, to date, the professional association maintains strong control over professional standards and the accreditation of social work education programs to provide eligibility for professional membership. However, the AASW has been striving to achieve national registration and protection of title, through the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (NRAS) (which was established in 2010). There were more than 12,000 members of the Australian Association of Social Workers in June 2019 (AASW, 2019). Australian social work is generalist, secular, and based on a Western rationalist way of thinking, with a strong commitment to social justice.

The Aotearoa-New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) was established in 1964. In response to an increasingly residual welfare system, the Aotearoa-New Zealand social work profession sought to address racism, poverty, inequality, social change, and political participation through a bicultural frame (Gray, Collett van Rooyen, Rennie, & Gaha, 2002). There were c. 3300 members of the ANZASW in 2018. Recently, the ANZASW introduced mandatory registration of social workers, which will be fully effective in 2020. With regard to social work education, for many years there have been multiple paths of entry into the social work profession to ensure inclusivity, but the introduction of the Social Workers Registration Act (2003), which established a voluntary system of registration, and the New Zealand Tertiary Education Strategy (2002) led to profound changes by professionalizing social work education through the introduction of a three-year qualifying degree—in contrast to the four-year degree offered by the 16 university-based programs—and the entry of providers outside the university in polytechnics and private tertiary education settings (Beddoe, 2007).

Currently, it is difficult to calculate the precise number of social workers in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand and to determine the fields in which they are primarily practicing, due to a number of factors: the social work title is not held exclusively by the profession (although this will soon change with registration in Aotearoa-New Zealand), some social workers work in positions without a social work requisite or title, and government classifications often encompass employees with a variety of professional qualifications and experience (e.g., counselor or welfare training). However, social workers are employed in government organizations, such as hospitals and healthcare facilities, schools and child protection, non-government and community agencies, including family support and employment and disability services, and in private practice. Government reports suggest that employment in social work positions will continue to grow across the next decade in Aotearoa-New Zealand and strongly in Australia.

Social work is an emerging profession in the Pacific Islands, and the legacy of colonialism continues to influence perceptions and acceptance of its legitimacy and development. The social work profession has been recognized only recently in some Pacific Island countries (Ravulo, 2019). Social work education commenced in the 1970s in this region and there are three social work programs situated in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Guam. Fiji and Papua New Guinea have established professional social work associations, but social work is not regulated in these countries.

There are a number of conditions that have influenced social work’s reception and reputation in the region. For example, existing relational understandings, practices, and values that are framed generally around familial and community affiliation may result in local perceptions of social work as unnecessary, an option of last resort, or an imposition on existing sociocultural arrangements (Ravulo, 2019). The term social work is fluid and not equated generally with a professional qualification or status in many areas. Traditional understandings of mental health, what constitutes a personal or social problem, and the implications of needing help from an outsider may limit engagement with welfare services (Galea’i, 2013; Saxton, 2013). Hence, local communities and funding bodies may not see the value in social work. It is understood increasingly that understanding and engaging actively within these contexts will support the development of indigenous models of social work.

There is a growing recognition that indigenous social work must be grounded in the knowledge, values, and languages of the populations its serves. Ravulo (2019) suggests that the International Association of Schools of Social Work’s (IASSW) (2015) definition of social work supports the positioning and expression of indigenous knowledges alongside those underlying previously prioritized Western models. He advocates collaboration between, rather than the integration of, Western and Pacific models of social work to avoid the dissolution of the former and the dominance of the latter. Mafile’o and Vakalahi (2016) drew attention to the development of Pacific indigenous social work across borders, particularly in Aotearoa-New Zealand and the United States, which is somewhat representative of the Pacific peoples living in these countries. They acknowledge an emerging body of knowledge and practice across this region that “draws heavily on indigenous Pacific worldviews, knowledge, values, and practices that have developed over hundreds of years” (Mafile’o & Vakalahi, 2016, p. 539). Some common characteristics of Pacific frameworks and models include theory and knowledge that commences with the ethnic-specific worldview and incorporates non-Pacific aspects; indigenous languages and metaphors constitute core concepts; the richness of approaches—derived from primarily oral and spiritual traditions—may be most evident in process and practice; and the focus is on work with one’s own people (see Mafile’o & Vakalahi, 2016 for further detail). Mafile’o and Vakalahi (2016) proposed that “the ‘next wave’ of Pacific social work be centred in Pacific homelands to invigorate new approaches that better address well-being for transnational Pacific peoples” (p. 537). These critiques, sites of resistance, and cross fertilization of ideas will have significant implications for the ways that social work is developed and taught into the future.

Finally, social workers In Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands have been conscious of ecological perspectives and environmental issues since the 1990s, and their calls for climate action in this region are growing. Research consistently highlights the disproportionate effects of climate change and disaster on vulnerable populations (Howard, Agllias, Bevis, & Blakemore, 2018). This knowledge has been accompanied by cultural shifts in disaster-management policy, including shared-responsibility and community-resilience frameworks (Howard et al., 2017). Social work in this region is well aligned with these agendas. It is engaged in environmental advocacy, research, and intervention, and increasingly, social workers are occupying positions in disaster prevention, response, and recovery (e.g., Alston, Hargreaves, & Hazeleger, 2018; Du Plooy, Harms, Muir, Martin, & Ingliss, 2014; Mayer & Maidment, 2013). Environmental pedagogy is embedded in the social work curriculum to a greater extent than in the past (e.g., Boddy, Macfarlane, & Greenslade, 2018; Papadopoulos, 2019).


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