History of ANZASW

The New Zealand Association of Social Workers: Origins and early years

Written by Mary Nash (2007)

Read More: http://www.socialworkhistory.nz/


This brief history of the early years of the Aoteraoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers and is drawn from a variety of sources, primary and secondary. It aims to record some key events and debates which have occurred, but it only scratches the surface. I have included references and links for those seeking more information. I am very conscious that other stories can be told, and hope they will be added to the Association’s website as well. My focus is partly on a chronology of events, partly on social work education and partly on the social justice vision of social work.

References and Links to resources are included.

The early years

The ANZASW The New Zealand Association of Social Workers, established in 1964. Late in 1964, the Association was formally admitted to the International Federation of Social Workers, at the Federation conference in Athens.  Professor McCreary represented the Association on that occasion and members were delighted to have become part of the international scene.  He sent a euphoric report to the 1964 conference, copies of which are scattered through the various un-catalogued boxes of Association papers examined.  (For an account of the first two years of the Association, see Nash, M. with Merv Hancock. (2005). The first two years of the New Zealand Association of social workers:1964 – 1966: Reflections on rereading the first issue of the New Zealand Social Worker. Social Work Review.  XVII (1) 23-30).


One of the main goals of the NZASW was to set up branches throughout the country.  These were to provide a public forum for discussion.  A primary aim of the Association was to see education and training made widely available to practitioners.  When the NZASW decided on its criteria for membership, it opted for an egalitarian and inclusive approach which admitted people into the Association not only if they had a professional qualification but also if they were working in an agency that the Association recognised as employing social workers.  This was quite different from the Australian system in which a professional qualification was essential before membership. This was a pragmatic measure, because the Association could never have sustained itself with only the small numbers of qualified social workers in the country.  It also showed acceptance of the capabilities of practitioners with qualifications other than degrees or post-graduate courses.  With this significant decision the social justice vision was embedded in social work and members have been confronted with the tension between social and community work, social control and social action ever since.

A two-way relationship between professional social workers and social work educators can be seen in the history of the ANZASW.  The identification of social service practitioners as “social workers”, a process that began in the early 1950s, was fostered by the School of Social Science, Victoria University, Wellington.  Social work practitioners, who called themselves social workers, had, over time formed a series of local associations and eventually transformed these isolated associations into a national association (McCreary, J. R. (1971a). The School of Social Science: Part one – the Martians. The New Zealand Social Worker 7 (1),  9-17. M. Hancock, pers. comm. 26/9/95).

Before this, the Child Welfare Officers’ Association, formed in 1949, continued until 1954.  It signalled the beginning of a movement to offer practitioners a public forum in which to air their concerns.  Between 1957 and 1960 regional groups of social workers emerged.  The Otago Branch began in 1957/8, through the energies of Merv Hancock, (then working in Dunedin) while the Central Districts started a group in 1961, (also due to the organising abilities of Merv Hancock).  In 1962, the Otago Social Workers’ Association hosted the Social Workers’ Study Conference in Dunedin.  It was attended by 56 people, many of whom were Reverends, Religious Sisters, Members of the Salvation Army, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic Social Services.  The theme of the conference was, aptly, the definition of social work.  The definition chosen was

Social work is the process of helping people with the aid of appropriate social services, to resolve or mitigate a wide range of personal social problems which they are unable to meet successfully without such help. This process calls for both knowledge and skills (Otago Social Workers’ Association (1962 p1). Social workers’ study conference. Dunedin: Otago Social Workers’ Association).

The conference was addressed by keynote speakers among whom were Ephra Garrett, Merv Hancock, Professor Robb and Professor Minn (Otago Social Workers Association, 1962).  In the conference papers, the editor explained

At this first study conference of social workers, while we were aware of our present lack of a definitive framework in which social workers could operate as a profession, we were nevertheless surprised that such a medley of social workers had such a uniformity of common ground (Otago Social Workers Association, 1962: 1).

The definition of social work above is based on working with the individual on a personal level.  The critical analysis and macro end of the spectrum was not yet explored. Perhaps this lack was partially recognised when Ephra Garrett voiced the feelings of the conference suggesting there was a need for a code of ethics which could and should be a charter of client’s rights, give the social worker professional standing and bind social workers together  (Garrett,E Otago Social Workers’ Association (1962 p1). Social workers’ study conference. Dunedin: Otago Social Workers’ Association).

The inaugural conference in Auckland

The formation of the NZASW was marked by an inaugural conference in Auckland in February 1964, when Merv Hancock thanked the Association for electing him as its first President.  He referred to the recognition of social work as a unified profession despite its many fields of practice:  “I am sure that I say this for you all, that social work is a whole and our unity far transcends our differences” (Hancock, Social Workers’ Conference, 1964: [1]).

In his keynote address at the inaugural conference of the New Zealand Association of Social Workers, Professor McCreary remembered the first conference organised by the School of Social Science in 1950 saying that his strongest impression of the conference was that the generic term “social worker” meant little to those present.  Instead they were people who were distinct in their own particular agency, each of whom defined social work within their own framework and within the framework of their own legislation(McCreary, J. R. (1964). Keynote address. Report of Inaugural Conference, NZASW inc. pp3-6. Auckland: The Pelorus Press Ltd. ).

He further commented that changes had occurred so that now the generic term was widely understood and judging from the programme for the conference he was addressing, there was now “a recognised body of practice and theory which constitutes the profession of social work”.  He then suggested that the keynote of the conference was its aim to “increase the self-conscious awareness of [social workers] as professional people and as members of a profession” (ibid: 3).

NZASW efforts to provide education and training for members

The NZASW was a strong advocate for the provision of professional and other courses in social work education in this country. The NZASW journal reflects these interests by giving considerable space to the topic of social work education and training.  Its second issue contained an article encapsulating perennial themes.  Training (or the lack of it) is described as: ‘the most important problem the Association is confronted with.  It is also a unifying theme in the Association.’  (Wadsworth, W. (1965). Training for social work.New Zealand Social Worker, 1 (2) 45.).

In addition to university education, the author saw a place for professional full time courses to be available through polytechnics and called for co-operation between employers and the New Zealand Association of Social Workers to effect these changes.  These same themes are ongoing:

The argument is by no means settled as to what is optimum academic training for any particular one form of social work.  Other professions strike this difficulty too, but social work presents a unique problem.  Mainly this is due to the variety of fields of application – groups of authoritative and non-authoritative activity, employers’ policies, cultural sub-division, and the need on the one hand of a casework service; and on the other hand the community needs that to be recognised with administrative efficiency.  These last two concepts are far from reconciled.  It may be a conservative observation, but this is a field of work where the customer is not yet king, but rather the employer is still emperor   (NZASW Christchurch Branch, to NZASW Standards and Salaries Committee, undated, circa 1969).

The NZASW was particularly active between 1964 and 1972.  The work
of the Standing Committee on Education and Training provides a good example of the Association’s work in relation to the development of social work education.  This can be best seen through the publications of the Association Journal beginning with The New Zealand Social Worker, first published in August, 1965, the voice of the recently formed New Zealand Association of Social Workers. The NZASW quarterly journal has had several titles: The New Zealand Social Worker, 1965-75, New Zealand Social Work, 1977-81, New Zealand Social Work Journal, 1981-88 and Social Work Review. 1988-.

The work of the Association has been continuously recorded in its quarterly journals and more frequent newsletters. Biennial conferences were introduced, beginning with one on Welfare and Social Work at Massey University in 1965.

It has covered aspects of social work theory and practice, news of Association activities, statements and policies, including the biennial conferences and the president’s report.  There has been regular coverage of the international scene with a brief for human rights issues as well as social work more narrowly defined.  News from the branches, the secretary’s page, together with correspondence from readers, has provided a picture of what was happening in the developing field of social work in New Zealand.

The Education and Training Committee

The Education and Training Committee, one of the first standing committees to be set up by the NZASW, was formed in 1964.  Major Thelma Smith, in Auckland, was its first chairperson (for her story, see Nash. M. 2000. Their stories – our history. Thelma Smith.Social Work Review, XII(3):32-36). This committee became a key standing committee of the Association and, as a pressure group, it advocated for social work education.  (For more information on the history of social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand, seeNash, M, (1998) People, Policies and Practice: Social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1949-1995. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Massey University. There is a copy at National Office).

The New Zealand Association of Social Workers in the 1970s and 80s

The years 1972-3 ushered in a new era for social work with the establishment of the Department of Social Welfare and the New Zealand Council for Social Work Training. The NZASW had campaigned vigorously against the minimalist government policy on the reorganisation of the social services. However, the proposals put forward by the NZASW in Social Welfare at the Crossroads (New Zealand Association of Social Workers. (1971)Social Welfare at the Crossroads: Report on Social Welfare in New Zealand. Wellington:    New Zealand Association of Social Workers.) had failed to deflect the government from its decision to amalgamate the Child Welfare Division and the Income Support Service.  The effort involved in advocating for professional social work education and practice was difficult for an under-resourced voluntary organisation to sustain.  It could be argued that the NZASW, having put up a strong fight, was subsequently weakened, partly because the personal efforts of individual members left the Association temporarily exhausted, and partly because its challenges had been troublesome to the Government.  However, in 1972, once the legislation for the amalgamation of the Child Welfare Division and the Income Support Service was enacted, the NZASW agreed to support the new social service delivery arrangements.

The new legislation gave expression to social work as an occupational category in the Department of Social Welfare (1972) and this significant move was accompanied by an acknowledgment of the need for training and education for social workers and the Department of Social Welfare established the New Zealand Social Work Training Council as part of its legal responsibility towards social work education.

Early debates around registration

In December 1976, members of the NZASW were discussing issues around registration.  News and Views set out the advantages and disadvantages of registration.  The advantages included protection for clients and employers, professional development, training, skills development and protection for social workers.  The disadvantages were that there were so few professionally qualified social workers eligible for registration that the scheme might undermine ‘the unqualified in a situation where they are the back-bone of the service’  (News and Views, Issue 12, December 1976 p.1).

Calls for social justice

The 1980s were characterised by strong tensions, both within and outside of the NZASW, between the calls for social justice, social action and conventional case work methods in social work. Murray Short, for instance, was a Council Member from 1976-86 and was the NZASW representative as well as a Student Unit Supervisor and Probation Officer.  His analysis of the period was telling.

I think the predominant thing about that era is that there were two separate currents going on.  One was the drive for professionalism, and the other was the community dimension, the community orientation, and they were linked.. (M. Short, pers. comm. 5/10/95).

Society was facing hardships by 1979 as can be seen from Mary Gray’s annual report, as President of the NZASW, when she drew attention to the continual attacks on, and constant undermining of the Welfare State.  Cuts in social services have been made in widely varying areas ranging from the “sinking lid” policy over all Government departments including Social Welfare, Justice and Maori Affairs to one percent cuts in Hospital Board budgets and the removal of mortgage priority for families with children…. The Welfare State in New Zealand is at a critical stage…. People are closing into self-interest lobbies intent on protecting their own interests at the expense of those least able to fight in the political arena… (Gray, M. (1979 p.1). President’s Annual Report, Year ending 30 June 1979. New Zealand Association of Social Workers.). [2]

Professionalisation of social work encouraged by new legislation [3] assisted its consolidation and signaled clearer lines of demarcation between groups in society working for the welfare of people.  Speakers at the 1982 NZASW Biennial Conference, whose theme was “social justice a social work concern for the 80′s”, acknowledged the changes that were taking place in the governance of Aotearoa/New Zealand.  The Right Honourable Ann Hercus, Minister of Social Welfare, in her keynote speech, said she believed that social workers in Aotearoa/New Zealand were concerned in the name of social justice, with both individual and community well-being and that [they understood] the complex interaction between the two” (New Zealand Association of Social Workers. (Hercus, 1982: 3). Biennial conference: Social justice: A social work concern for the 1980′s. Wellington: NZASW.).

The NZASW publication, News and Views, reported the debates taking place at this time and came out as regularly as possible. The Association has published reports and statements throughout its existence and these, together with Branch records and those of the National Executive and National Council, preserve the key debates and positions taken by the Association, its committees and its members.  They show the energy and commitment of NZASW members over the years.

Beddoe and Randal (1994) have documented the history of the Association in the 1980s, a controversial and stimulating period for the direction of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. (See Beddoe and Randal, The New Zealand Association of Social Workers: The Professional Response to a Decade of Change. In Robyn Munford and Mary Nash (1994). Social Work in Action, Palmerston North: Dunmore Press).

Other useful references to the history of the ANZASW and social work in Aotearoa in New Zealand are:

Nash, M. (1999) Our history – and our professional social work identity. Social WorkReview X1(3):2-5.

Nash, M. (1998). ‘That terrible title, social worker’ Social Work Review X(1):12-18

[1] Written on scrap of paper in manuscript collection, Dept of Social Policy and Social Work.

[2] A copy of this President’s Annual Report can be found in Brook, 1988, Appendix XI: 127.

[3] For example, The Department of Social Welfare Act, 1972 and the Children and Young Person’s Act, 1974.