Remembering Professor Ian Shirley

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) mourns the loss of Professor Ian Shirley, who passed away at the weekend.

Professor Shirley will be remembered as a man of brilliance and integrity, who strove throughout his long career to advance the cause of social justice in this country, contributing so much to the development of social policy, both as a field of academic study and as a means to improve society.

Ian began his career as a community worker in Auckland before moving into academia. In 1977 he was appointed Lecturer in the Social Work Unit of the Sociology Department, Massey University. In 1982 he was appointed Chair of the Social Policy and Social Work Department at Massey, where he stayed until he relocated to Auckland in 2000. He was the Chairperson of New Zealand Council for Education and Training in the Social Services (NZCETSS) from 1986 to 1995.

Joining the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Ian took the role of Professor of Social Policy, eventually becoming Vice-Chancellor and Convenor of the University’s Professorial Forum. While at AUT he founded the Institute of Public Policy and the Policy Observatory.

In addition to this, Ian held visiting professorships and fellowships at a number of international academies and was involved in ministerial councils with several administrations. He also was a member of research advisory boards and panels for the National Research Advisory Council, the Royal Society and the New Zealand Government’s Bioethics Council.

During his time at Massey and Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Ian taught many ANZASW members. Retiring in 2016, he continued to be outspoken on matters such as housing, child / tamariki well-being and the social damage wrought by neoliberal economics; he produced his final briefing paper just last month.

ANZASW life member Dr. Mary Nash, who worked with Ian for many years remembered him as
“the kind of person who was not afraid to speak truth to power” and who lived his values. Examples of the latter include his commitment to realising the principle of tino rangatiratanga during his time as NZCETSS chair and his work on the terms of reference for the seminal Royal Commission on Social Policy (published in 1988).

“The Terms of Reference were wide ranging in scope and in my opinion reflected the best of Ian Shirley’s values,” Dr Nash recalls.

“The Commission was to consult the people as to whether they considered that New Zealand met the standard of a fair society and if not, where it fell short of such a standard. The standards of a fair society, defined in the Terms of Reference, spoke of “dignity and self-determination for individuals, families and communities” and “maintenance of a standard of living sufficient to ensure that everybody can participate in and have a sense of belonging to the community” together with “a fair distribution of the wealth and resources of New Zealand,” she added.

This framing was instrumental in directing the Commission to produce one of the most high-impact reports on social policy in our history, with a particular focus on the ways in which women / wahine, Tangata Whenua and other minorities have experienced inequity and unfairness.

ANZASW member and fellow Massey academic Kieran O’ Donahue, who also knew Professor Shirley, observed that “Ian has made a significant and lasting contribution to social policy, community development and social work” in Aotearoa New Zealand.

As social workers, we are committed to the ideal of social justice and the liberation of disadvantaged individuals, causes which were close to Ian’s heart. His legacy lives on in a movement of people, including many social workers, informed by his work, who strive to realise his vision for making Aotearoa New Zealand live up to its promise as a nation of fairness, equity and pai-oranga for all.

We encourage those who have not done so already to listen to this interview conducted by Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill in which Ian talked about his work and social policy in general:…/ian-shirley-public-policy-pione… (September 2017)