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date: 19 January 2020

International Social Work and Social Welfare: Australia and Pacific Islands

Abstract and Keywords

Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are among the world's most “livable” 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. In the Pacific Islands, where social work is much less developed, economic and social potential is hampered by political instability and a lack of sustainable economic management, rapid urbanization, unemployment, and crime.

Keywords: Aotearoa-New Zealand, Australia, Pacific Islands, social welfare, social work, socioeconomic conditions

This region comprises Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands or Melanesia, which 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 22.9 million people (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012), Papua New Guinea with 6.3 million people (Central Intelligence Agency, 2012), and Aotearoa-New Zealand with 4.4 million people (Statistics New Zealand, 2012).

Economic and Political Features

The Commonwealth of Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are parliamentary democracies with a legal system based on English Common Law. Queen Elizabeth II is the current head of state. Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand's postwar political system was informed by Keynesian economic principles, but during the 1980s both countries commenced 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. Neoliberal micro-reform has continued under successive governments (Fairbrother, Svensen, & Teicher, 1997; New Zealand Treasury, 2007).

Australia has a successful economy, experiencing consistently strong growth in gross domestic product since 1998 without significant increases in inflation (Australian Government, 2007), and it was well situated to buffer the effects of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

Aotearoa-New Zealand's economy has also performed well over the past decade but has been more vulnerable to negative world events (New Zealand Treasury, 2007). The Pacific Islands are low-income to lower middle-income economies facing a number of economic challenges, including unplanned urbanization, poor economic growth, poverty, and high unemployment. Pacific Island economies are particularly vulnerable to natural, political, and economic “shocks” and have limited access to global markets (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006). Combined with the Global Financial Crisis, these economies have been more susceptible to poor growth and declining per capita income (Chhibber, 2009).

Gross domestic product per capita in U.S. dollars equalled $47,615 in Australia, $27,384 in New Zealand, $3,604 in Fiji, and $1,174 in Papua New Guinea in 2009 (United Nations Statistic Division, 2011). In Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, around 70% of the labor force works in the service industry, while the significant majority of the Pacific Island labor force is employed in agriculture. Australia's major export commodities include minerals, wheat, meat, machinery, and transport equipment. Aotearoa-New Zealand exports include dairy products, wheat, meat, fish, and machinery. Australia and New Zealand's major imports include machinery, electronic equipment, and petroleum (Central Intelligence Agency, 2012). The Pacific Islands have significant economic potential in a number of areas, including agriculture, fisheries, logging, mining, and tourism, but all of these industries require better management, governance, infrastructure, and sustainable practices (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006).

Social Conditions

Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand were ranked highly on the Human Development Index in 2011, coming in second and fifth, respectively (United Nations Development Programme, 2011). Population health outcomes in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are among the best in the world, but they vary widely in the Pacific Islands. Life expectancy ranges 80 years for men and 84 years for women in Australia, 79 years for men and 83 years for women in New Zealand, 66 years for men and 73 years for women in Fiji, and 62 years for men and 65 years for women in Papua New Guinea. Child mortality per 1,000 ranges 5 in Australia, 6 in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and 17 in Fiji, and 61 in Papua New Guinea (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2012).

However, policy emphasis on individual responsibility and mutual obligation in Australia and New Zealand has failed to distribute wealth and social support evenly, and there has been a significant growth in relative poverty over the last decade (Disney, 2004; O'Brien, 2001). This is particularly so for the Australian Aboriginal and the New Zealand Maori populations (O'Brien, 2001; Senate Community Affairs References Committee Secretariat, 2004). Significant negative differences are evident in the life expectancy, socioeconomic status, literacy levels, and employment rates of indigenous people, particularly those in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005; Ministry of Maori Development, 2000). In 2008 the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made an historic apology to the “Stolen Generations,” the generations of indigenous Australians affected by previous children removal policies, which not only acknowledged the legacy of such practices but was widely heralded as a significant step forward in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal race relations.

The most immediate social issue in many of the Pacific Islands is unemployment 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. Rapid urbanization and poverty are serious problems, with associated crime posing challenges in some counties (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006).

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. However, the coalition government's adoption of neoliberal economic policy has led to the attrition of government welfare services and welfare state institutions. Even more disconcerting to social service providers is the government's apparent lack of concern for its indigenous population and its inability to acknowledge the effects of past policies on indigenous people. Also problematic is the apparent lack of concern for non-White refugees from strife-torn countries. The myth of equality is evident in the marginalization of rural inhabitants, rising poverty, and ongoing health problems faced by indigenous people. Of great concern is the exceptionally high suicide and incarceration rate, particularly among young people, increasing domestic violence, and drug abuse.

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 such a low level of interest in becoming social workers among school leavers. Government policy changes have meant there are now much 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 health and the potential for private practice in the fields of mental health and aged care, which is new to Australia.

The 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; Fook, 2002; Healy, 2000; Ife, 1997; Napier & Fook, 2000; Pease & Fook, 1999). Second, Australasia is a territory colonized by immigrants who have supplanted the values and cultures of the indigenous people who have always lived there. And while politically Aotearoa-New Zealand has made important advances in Maori relations and policies, Australia's political history on indigenous relations tends to be more ambivalent, even though in public discourse diversity is embraced and a policy of multiculturalism is advocated. Thus, there is an interesting and emerging literature in Australasia on indigenous social work and cultural diversity, which is of intense interest to those concerned with culturally relevant social work practice (see Gray, Coates, & Yellow Bird, 2008; Lynn, 2001; Mafile'o, 2004; Walsh-Taipata, 2004). 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. 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).

With regard to social work education, there are 26 schools of social work in Australia and 16 in New Zealand, where social work education has been available for 50 years. The only Pacific schools are in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

In response to an increasingly residual welfare system, the Aotearoa-New Zealand social work profession sought to address racism, poverty, and inequality and pledged its commitment to biculturalism, social change, and political participation (Gray, Collett van Rooyen, Rennie, & Gaha, 2002). 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 “professionalizing” social work education through the introduction of a 3-year qualifying degree—in contrast to the 4-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).

As in Aotearoa-New Zealand, the social work profession in Australia has a fairly recent history, with the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) having been established in 1946. Australian 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, the professional association, the AASW, maintains strong control over professional standards and the accreditation of schools of social work to provide eligibility for professional membership. Australian social work is generalist, secular, and based on a Western rationalist way of thinking, with a strong commitment to social justice.


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