Social Dialogue Magazine
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Linda Briskman, Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work, Western Sydney University Australia.

Social work’s past, present and future: When will we ever learn

Like many of my contemporaries, I entered social work to ‘do good’, not expecting to be continually on guard and undertaking critique of the profession alongside the social and political context in which it operates. Reflecting back on more than 40 years of my social work existence since the 1980s, I offer thoughts in three parts – somewhat incomplete – but what I believe to be the nub of the issues and prospects for the future. Although each section hopefully resonates globally, I write from the Australian context.

The first relates to public welfare practice, which was the norm when I entered the profession.

The second is the ‘slippery slope’ when social work went to the market, combined with colluding with dominant discourses.

And the third is a beginning examination of potential for a changing society at the time of pandemic.

A benevolent state?

As a believer in state provision and a disciple of the 1970s brief reformist era of government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, I began my social work career in public welfare in rural Australia. It was a time of less homogenisation and preceding mass communication methods that dominate today; there was less sophisticated propaganda and fake news. Before the development of virtual meetings through technology, interactions took place with peers across the state where there was scope to innovate through collegiality, creativity and compassion. These were not however, halcyon days with the prevalence of unchallenged racism and judgmental labels that reflected wider community attitudes, even without social media to perpetrate bigotry and hate. Critical reflection was not the norm as could be gleaned within files. I recall ‘case planning’ meetings, where in the interests of a burgeoning but undeveloped idea of ‘consumer participation’, families sat in judgment by social workers to be told of their dysfunction and, with few checks and balances, found their children retained in the ‘care’ of the state, despite vehement protest. I recall our audacity in conducting unannounced ‘home visits’ to vulnerable families, which in hindsight equated to surveillance of the vulnerable.

It was here where I gained first insights into the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal communities and its continuities in welfare practice, although few social workers had the perceptiveness to challenge what had not yet entered the social work lexicon. We frequently operated intuitively from the heart, but emotion was discredited by what was deceptively portrayed as objectivity and ‘best practice’. I left state welfare after ten years to enter the academic world where I was ill-prepared for the new turn in my chosen career of social work.

Social work enters the marketplace

The corporatisation of social work and the adoption of market principles was a scandal, although its insidious step-by-step creep initially left us unaware of its significance. The human services increasingly adopted an approach where CEOs and business prototypes became dominant, and content-free management emerged. The entry of the non-government sector was anticipated to neutralise the excesses of state practice. This hope was dashed as non-government provision was clearly at the behest of the state, including homogenisation of programs rather than tailoring to a diversity of groups and communities. Advocacy passions mellowed for fear of loss of funding that came with competitive tendering. What became known as new managerialism stripped social work of moral responsibility in the interests of efficiency, profit and aversion to risk. Boards of management of service organisations were dominated by the voices of accountants and lawyers, holding a worldview that frequently conflicted with experiences and observations of hands-on social workers. It was only a matter of time before social work became complicit in economic efficiency templates, even as critical approaches were tentatively taking hold.

In the Indigenous sphere, there was an alarming over- representation of Aboriginal children in social welfare and youth correctional systems and of adults in prisons, many of which became privatised and thus further reducing transparency and accountability. Out of home care for Aboriginal children increased in scope and scale and has not subsided. Escalating politics of law and order continues to swell the number of incarcerated Indigenous people. Although social work joined others in apologising for past wrongs meted out to Aboriginal families, there has been a regrettable failure of the profession to influence the present.


In striking continuity, collusion spirals in states that are increasingly repressive, expansively managerialist and less caring, and where measures that contradict anti- oppressive and anti-racist tenets are in place. Although social work’s commitment to human rights is both tacit and codified, as a collective we fail to be outraged by these trends. Two contemporary Australian examples are troubling.

The first is employment of social workers with reputable non-government organisations in offshore immigration detention to meet the interests of Australia’s border protection regime. The social justice commitment of these organisations was diminished for the profit motive, despite public relations spin to the contrary. Social workers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) were lured by high salaries and a belief that they could do good. Rather than being ‘client centred’ they were expected to work with detained asylum seekers within the harsh constraints of government policy, together with a range of contracted providers doing the bidding of government. The work they were undertaking contradicted social work values, ethics and practice imperatives that many inexperienced graduates who took these posts would have had inculcated during their social work education.

The second concerns a relatively recent scourge globally and in Australia – Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment. Social work has been largely absent in joining with the Muslim community in gestures of solidarity. Even more serious is direct collusion with the state, with the Australian Association of Social Workers running radicalisation prevention programs for social workers, reaping substantial financial profit. Despite public denial that such activities target Muslims, evidence from Countering Violent Extremism programs in Australia and globally, points to the contrary. Social work is losing the trust of Muslims and contributing to their surveillance.

The time of pandemic

As I write, we have entered the era of global pandemic through the spread of COVID-19. Although universal in contagion and with media attention primarily focusing on western nations, countries most disadvantaged by income, population size, health provision and/or sanctions will experience the most significant disparities. With less affluent nations unable to put emergency funding measures in place, inequalities will continue long into recovery phase. With populations in prosperous nations such as Australia experiencing what others face regularly – isolation, difficulty accessing basic goods, losing control over day-to-lives - will we observe new insights into structural disadvantage? Will the randomness of the virus and the emergence of the nouveau-poor in western nations create empathy that has been sorely lacking under neo-liberalism? Even at this early stage it is illuminating to see adversarial barriers breaking down in Australia. Trade unions are working harmoniously with government. The unemployed are no longer situated as ‘undeserving’, with generous boosts to payments. Child-care is free through government subsidies, a measure that in other times would have been pejoratively labelled by neo-liberals as socialism. Government influence on the banking sector signals a slight move away from de-regulation. The new mantra of ‘We are all in this together’ might overturn previously held attitudes and beliefs. And rather than positioning the west as where answers lie, we can cast our gaze to countries that are inherently more communitarian and where people from even the poorest sectors of society reach out beyond their own hardships.

Communities are emerging and neighbourhoods uniting. Consumerism and brand obsession decline as shopfronts close and travel is banned, with Australian society becoming less acquisitive. Dominance of large supermarket chains has grown exponentially but perhaps with some kindness that tempers the profit motive. Prisons in countries such as Iran, Indonesia and the United States are emptying and although Australia has to date only partially implemented such measures, opportunities may arise to reconsider imprisonment as a first resort and turn around the ascendancy of law and order ideologies. It is timely to discuss the excessive incarceration of Aboriginal people, particularly as the Australian government is deeming Aboriginal people aged over 50 to be vulnerable and endeavouring to protect remote communities. With enforced quarantine taking hold in Australia for returned overseas travellers, we see the middle classes dismayed by their enforced incarceration in hotel settings, which might create insight into the confinement of asylum seekers whom like this more privileged group have not committed an offence. In the environmental movement that social workers increasingly join, we bear witness in a number of countries to improved air quality and cleaner waterways. Pressure needs to be applied in order to halt unfettered industry dominance and carbon emissions.

Slowly, there is a recasting of individualism to community-oriented approaches of mutuality and creativity, driven from the ground up at a time when community development practice is marginalised in social work. This may offer hope for revival when ‘the community’ sees the benefit of moving to the collective. Can a new order emerge from a crisis and how can social work contribute?

Social workers as advocates and activists can collectively organise to promote a new world order. Now is the time while the nation appears more economically Keynesian. Notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ have temporarily collapsed with political parties working in unity. A move away from the private/public divide in Australia is emerging in the two- tiered health system. A new social contract reveals the value of workers and not just employers.

Despite such prospects, there is a need for vigilance as insidious forces are at play. Although social work is attuned to discussing economic and social rights, we need to ensure that erosion of civil liberties does not become normalised with new forms of enforced compliance that we are witnessing across the globe. Although most of us understand the need for isolation and social distancing, excessive policing, the use of the army and increased bordering could become permanently established. There is a precedent. In Australia as elsewhere, where civil liberties wound down in the sphere of counterterrorism arising from 9/11, which created the so-called war on terror. We are now all potentially under surveillance. There has been a speedy introduction of excessive punishment regimes for those who breach conditions, including the prospect of fines, imprisonment, electronic tagging and the likelihood of what one state Premier in Australia has called extraordinary powers associated with a state of emergency. As civil libertarians point out, groups that are over-policed are the most susceptible to draconian application of enforcement. War metaphors have again emerged. Reversing extraordinary powers when the need diminishes is not guaranteed, as revealed in the almost two decades since 9/11 where there have been increases in counter- terrorism laws and the advent of Challenging Violent Extremism programs to which social work has regrettably subscribed, including in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Although there is cautious chatter about the end of rampant capitalism, there are warning signs ahead. Unlike countries where deficit for social good is accepted, Australia is risk averse. Government is saying that it may take ten years to diminish debt created by the injection of funds. Does this mean that austerity is again on the horizon? Who will be targeted as safety nets are selectively eroded? Can we assist in challenging what is presented as evidence and rational policy, to providing substantiation from social work practice that draws on voices of the marginalised that become increasingly unheard? And will we be more attentive to global inequities in our advocacy?

I end with a plea to raise our voices now and into the future to show that we can learn from past and present. We cannot do this alone so let’s join in the solidarity that is slowly emerging – a new social movement that is forward thinking and based on global, national and local justice.