The case against AASW constitutional changes: why and how to vote NO

The AASW, in an email broadcast is claiming that this blog post contains “false information” and “alternative facts”. I find this deeply hurtful. I am strongly committed to our code of ethics, social justice and participatory democracy. I will let you be the judge of how just and accurate my views are.

The AASW Board is seeking to change the constitution by putting two resolutions to the AGM. The first resolution bundles up a number of changes. Key elements of the bundle include banishing all reference to the Australian College of Social Work from the constitution and moving it to the bylaws, as well as moving a number of Branch powers and functions to the bylaws. If that resolution passes, the second resolution, abolishing direct member voting for National President and Vice President will also be put to the meeting. For either of these resolutions to be approved they need at least 75% of votes cast.

Abolishing a direct member vote for President and Vice-President
Direct democracy is the wisdom of the crowd. It matters. A direct US Presidential election would have seen Hilary Clinton as President- not Donald Trump.
The Board would have us believe that it is better that they vote annually amongst themselves for a chair and a vice-chair and rebadge this person as the President. This is deal-making behind closed doors.
Our members are entitled to continue to choose their leaders directly.
For a longer discussion of this issue, see my previous post in June.

Why it matters moving the Australian College of Social Work and Branch powers to the by laws
Amending the Constitution is a big deal. It requires a 75% majority of those who voted on the amendment. But changing the bylaws simply requires a majority vote of the Board.
In fact, the AASW changes bylaws routinely- and I cannot remember a single instance over the last few years of a change to bylaws being announced in an e-bulletin. (Happy to be corrected on this!)
No matter what assurances a current Board gives- it has no way of knowing what will happen just a few years into the future.
And so our College is effectively being downgraded from being an integral part of our vision and structure, into something that is nice to have, but could also potentially be abolished tomorrow. I believe that we need the College, and therefore its existence ought to be guaranteed by the Constitution.
Similarly, whilst the Branches survive in the Constitution, they are left hanging by a thread. Capitation, (diverting a proportion of member fees) is gone. The Branches power to raise money is gone. Democratic requirements on voting for Branch Presidents and Management Committees is gone. Delegated authority to act on behalf of the AASW is gone. Contributing to national strategic planning is gone.
How much of this will go into the bylaws? We don’t know. And how much will still be there in a few years time? Nobody knows.
The AASW was originally a federation of state branches. The Branches are a key part of our structure, and if nothing else, their contribution to strategic planning must be guaranteed in our Constitution.

A word on process
I shouldn’t have to be putting these arguments to you on this blog. Even if the AASW is supporting a particular direction, I think it is ethically obliged to publish a range of opinions to support informed decision making.
Only a handful of people participated in the consultation process, making it all the more important that discussion papers canvass the pros and cons of any proposal.
This blog only reaches a few people. The AASW reaches the entire membership.
The amendment abolishing the direct vote of the leadership has been separated out, whilst all the others proposed changes have been bundled into a take it or leave it package. Frankly I find this appalling.

Please take the time to vote against these proposals. You can do this by going to the AGM in Perth on November 9th, or by filling out a form to give your vote by proxy to someone attending the AGM.

POSTSCRIPT  November 2018
As most people now know- this proposal was defeated, with substantial numbers voting against the changes.

As the saying goes, “the world is run by those who show up”. And so I want to thank those members who took the time to vote on the proposed constitutional changes. If you voted yes or no, you “showed up” – and that level of engagement is precious.
I am strongly committed (as I am sure the entire AASW Board is) to encouraging and building on member engagement and participation.

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy | 7 Comments

Podcast episode 16: universal basic income- fixing inequality and mending our social fabric? An interview with Dr Ben Spies-Butcher

podcts whit text psdThe notion of a universal basic income (UBI) is gaining increasingly favourable attention from both the the left and right of politics. Small and seemingly favourable trials have occurred in some countries. To find out more about UBI I spoke with Dr Ben Spies-Butcher who lectures in Economy and Society in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University. Ben’s research focuses on the political economy of social policy.

In addition to his academic publications, Ben is a regular contributor to The Conversation. He is also a Research Associate at the Retirement Policy and Research Centre at the University of Auckland, and is a board member of Shelter NSW. He was also the 2017 Glenda Powell National Travelling Fellow for the Australian Association of Gerontology. Ben has written elsewhere that,

Unemployment benefits in Australia have gradually fallen behind the cost of living. The benefit, currently called the Newstart Allowance, is now one of the lowest in the OECD.
This makes it hard to effectively look for work, with devastating consequences for those relying on it. Even business economists have argued it needs to be raised.
Despite this, governments have moved in the opposite direction, shifting more people onto lower and highly conditional payments. This reflects the politics of payments that are very highly targeted.

Our conversation explores the idea of UBI and its relationship to work and social welfare.
Why are we all working so hard when automation was supposed to increase leisure time?
How has the state intervened in regulating both the paid and the unpaid economy?
Why has surveillance and compliance become such a central part of so many people’s work experience?
Why has pay day lending become so profitable? Why does household debt continue to rise?
If there was a UBI would we all just go to the beach and play computer games? Or would it reinvigorate democratic engagement and empower people to leave bad jobs?
How do we convince regional and rural Australians that punitive notions of ‘workfare’ are destructive to our social fabric?

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Podcast episode 15: Work- what is it good for? A conversation with Nick Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University

podcts whit text psdI sought out Nick Smith for this conversation because of my interest in the future of work. Nick has recently co-authored a book entitled The Return of Work in Critical Theory

According to the blurb,

“The book presents a bold new account of the human significance of work and the human costs of contemporary forms of work organization. A collaboration among experts in philosophy, social theory, and clinical psychology, it brings together empirical research with incisive analysis of the political stakes of contemporary work. The Return of Work in Critical Theory begins by looking in detail at the ways in which work today fails to meet our expectations. It is a lucid diagnosis of the malaise and pathologies of contemporary work and proposes powerful remedies.”

Nick was previously the Director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Research in Social Inclusion from 2003 to 2007 and was Head of the Department of Philosophy from 2008 to 2012.
Nick’s main interest lies in debates in social philosophy concerned with the diagnosis of modern social pathologies. These investigations have also led him to an area of enquiry that could be called the hermeneutics of work: that is -the interpretation of work as a meaningful, self-formative activity.
Sound a bit dry?
Not in the least. Nick and I had a lively conversation that explored some vital questions.
Why is work more stressful, and increasingly robbed of meaning beyond an economic transaction. Why does there seem to be more bureaucracy and more bullying? Why is casualisation on the rise?
Will increasing automation be a blessing or a disaster?
Is a universal basic income a potentially good policy or another symptom of the malaise.

And of course we speculate on what work in a utopian world might look like.

Posted in podcast, Social Policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Podcast episode 14: ‘open dialogue’- a potential revolution in mental health care? an interview with Professor Niels Buus

podcts whit text psdThere is growing  dissatisfaction with the care provided by state run mental heath services across the western world.

This forms part of the context  for my conversation with Niels Buus,  the Professor of Mental Health Nursing at the Sydney Nursing School based at St. Vincent’s Hospital  in Sydney, where he is the leader of The Centre for Family-Based Mental Health Care.

Niels has a broad research profile within mental health research, which includes suicide prevention, treatment adherence to antidepressants, clinical supervision of mental health nurses, as well as continuity of care and recovery-oriented health care delivery models.

He is a specialist in ethnographic research methods which can produce nuanced insights into healthcare practices and personal perspectives on health, illness and treatment.

Such approaches are particularly powerful in studies of user-participation in mental health research. As a Scandinavian registered nurse, he is professionally socialized into a strong humanist tradition, emphasizing compassion, openness and equality in healthcare.

In line with this, Niels is engaged in research in the “open dialogue” model of care, and how it could be implemented in Australian healthcare settings.

Niels and I  had an extensive  conversation covering his early training as a nurse, and the clash between custodial and psychotherapeutic models of care.

He also talked about the birth of open dialogue in a small town in Finland and what it looks like in practice.

We discussed how open dialogue sits alongside ‘Big Pharma’, the usual hierarchies of power and knowledge, and the traditional organisation of state services.

You can listen here or subscribe on iTunes or Sticher.

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Podcast episode 13: Can Facebook be a vehicle for democracy and social justice? An interview with social worker, Beni McKenzie

podcts whit text psdThis episode is a conversation with Beni Mackenzie one of the founders of the Australian Social Work Changemakers Facebook page.

The page was born of conversations amongst some social workers attending the 2013 AASW National Symposium. The purpose of the page is to provide an online environment for students and qualified social workers in Australia to converse, debate, collaborate and organise.

One of the principle aims of the page is also to contribute to the positioning of social work as the peak social justice profession, and an as important and respected political voice. From small beginnings, it now has over 670 members.

Before Beni got into social work he fuelled his sense of injustice with alcohol, anger and drugs; paradoxically these experiences have held him in good stead in understanding many of the people he now works with.

During our conversation, Beni describes his first social work job in the small outback town of Charleville, working with people affected by drugs and alcohol, and his current work with the homeless in Southport.

We also cover the boundaries and ethics of working in personal and digital space; the contradictions of working in social media designed to make a profit; and the challenges of holding on to horizontal democratic practices in hierarchical organisations.

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Podcast episode 12: crisis – what crisis?… an interview with social work academic Shirley Ledger on the place of field education in social work

Shirley Ledger started her working life as an enrolled nurse in a small hospital in rural Queensland. Realising that nursing was not for her she became involved in youth work and domestic violence services. Years later ironically, she found herself back at the same rural hospital as a social work student on placement.

But the focus of our interview was on social work field education.

For some years Shirley has been a university field education co-ordinator. In this role, she was heavily involved in training, curriculum development, supervision liaison, and placement breakdown.

She became deeply interested in academic claims that field education ought to be the “signature pedagogy” of social work. This then has become the work of her PhD in progress.

Lee Shulman, the academic who popularised the term “signature pedagogy”, held that in professional training it comprises the central form of instruction that prepares students for future professional practice.

Consequently, Shirley’s research questions are,

  1. How does the current model of field education connect with the three dimensions (surface, implicit and deep structure) of signature pedagogy?
  2. How does the current model of field education connect with the temporal patterns of signature pedagogy (initial pedagogy, capstone apprenticeships and the sequenced and balanced portfolio)?
  3. How and where are social work programs incorporating the pedagogies of formation, engagement and uncertainty into curriculum design?

This led to a fascinating discussion on a range of issues, including the lack of evidence for the efficacy of current fieldwork practices, questions about the sustainability of current arrangements, and questions about the social justice implications of mandating 1000 hours of unpaid placement, plunging students into poverty and hardship.

And so we dreamt about how necessary changes might be achieved.

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy, podcast, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Podcast episode 11: adventures in private practice – an interview with Suzanne Doorakkers-Sprague

podcts whit text psdThis episode is a conversation with Suzanne Doorakkers Sprague, a social worker with a large and thriving private practice in Geelong, where she employs 8 staff in several locations.

Her road to social work was a long one- coming via nursing and psychology. She has also been a counsellor at Alzheimers Australia, as well as working in rehabilitation and in social inclusion services for the elderly. Having lived in Geelong most of her adult life, Suzanne has deep roots in the town.

In a wide ranging interview Suzanne discusses the pleasures, challenges and dilemmas of setting up a practice and a business including; marketing, promotion, networking, setting fees, and handling social media. We discuss the anti business culture that exists in some sections of the social work profession, and how that is now changing.

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Podcast episode 10: working with LGBTIQ communities- an interview with social worker TL Tran

In this episode I interview social worker TL  Tran. She works in the area of LGBTIQ health.

podcts whit text psdThis is a very personal conversation to which TL brings a lot of humour and grace.

To escape persecution, TL’s family fled South Vietnam when she was 8 years old. TL speaks frankly about her refugee experiences, adapting to Australian culture,  and navigating the process of coming out as a bisexual woman in a traditional asian family.

We traverse her social work career  and  explore the values, knowledge and skills that she brings to her current work in LGBTIQ communities, with particular emphasis on narrative therapy.

Research tells us  that LGBTIQ people are at increased risk of a range of mental health issues including depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, suicidality and suicide, much of which has been attributed to experiences or fears of discrimination and abuse.

We explore the devastating impact that this  has on mental health in this community, and how TL approaches the challenge of confronting discrimination in her awareness raising sessions.

TL  provides us with a good map on how we can help people move from tolerance to true inclusivesness.


Posted in Culture, podcast, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Podcast episode 9: What’s wrong with child protection policy and practice? an interview with social worker, Tony Tonkin, founder of the Child Protection Party

podcts whit text psdTony Tonkin is the founder of the Child Protection Party in South Australia.  the Party is about to go national. We talk about the party and its purpose- but this is also a deeply personal interview.

Tony came to social work later in life. It gave him a sense of purpose that had previously been missing. After volunteering at Lifeline, he began studying social work and developed a passion for  therapeutic work. Studying social work changed his values profoundly. He got a job counselling gamblers and began to understand the the interplay of social forces that created the preconditions for addiction, depression, anxiety, child abuse and domestic violence.

As he developed his knowledge and skills he began to work more creatively and wholistically with a range of NGO’s, including confronting men around violence and abusive behaviour.

In the course of his practice he became very concerned about punitive practices in child protection which he felt did not uphold human dignity, or work for the best interests of children. This led him to systemic advocacy work in an effort to correct these abuses.

Our conversation explores the causes of child abuse and the effectiveness of prevention policies. We tease out some important questions. How much power or influence does the state have in preventing child abuse? When things go wrong, what is the balance between blaming individual workers versus cultures and systems? How much responsibility do we have to call out unethical practices in institutions? Given the truckloads of investigations, reports, and commissions that point to remedies to improve child protection, why do we see so little change?

For more information on the Child Protection Party- check out their website.

Posted in podcast, Politics, Social Policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Corporate logic trumps democracy: the AASW poised to remove the right of members to elect the National President

podcts whit text psdThe AASW has released a discussion paper proposing changes it would like to see agreed to at the next AGM in November. (You will have had an email about it- and you had until June 29th to comment.)

In relation to electing the National President the Paper states,

“..the National President and National Vice President will be elected by the Board from amongst their number on an annual basis, rather than be elected by the members..The President being elected by the Directors rather than the members is the usual practice in contemporary association governance. This is because the Directors will have closer experience in working with potential office bearers than the membership at large. The primary role of the President is to chair and manage the work of the Board. This means that the Directors are in a better position to assess who would best perform this role.” (my emphasis)

A “closer experience”? It is quite possible that many Directors will be meeting each other for the first time.  The Board is asking the members to leave these decisions to the grown-ups because they know best. Am I the only one who feels patronised?

In fact, the current Constitution is rather more expansive about the role, stating that the President,

 is available to consult with the CEO and delegated staff on Company matters between Board meetings;

c) represents the Board and the Company between its meetings;

d) reports all important interim actions to the Board;

e) in consultation with the Board, nominates convenors of all national committees who are ratified by the Board;

f) is an ex-officio member of all Company Boards, committees and other Company forums (excluding the ethics panel) but must not be appointed as a convenor of a national committee or a division of the Australian College of Social Work while holding the office of the National President;

g) assumes portfolio responsibilities for national committees as outlined in the By Laws and determined by the Board;

h) shall regularly communicate with members about the Company, its operations and issues affecting the profession;

This proposal will in effect downgrade the role of President to an annually elected chair of the Board. Currently, the President is a guide, mentor and Board communication conduit for the CEO, as well as being the public face of the profession. The AASW proposal seeks to put these duties in the “governance charter”- where of course they can be changed at the whim of any future Board without consultation.

Democracy is the wisdom of the crowd – and direct elections that involve all eligible voters are truly consequential. If the US election had been directly decided by the voters, Hilary Clinton would be President, have gotten 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. Similarly, if the Labor Party had directly elected their leader, it would not have been Bill Shorten, and if the Greens members had had their say, it would not have been Richard Di Natale.

Stripping students of voting rights

Another dubious idea  floated in the Discussion Paper is to deprive student members of the right to vote. The paper states,

“It is common in an association of professionals for Student Members not to have voting rights until they become a full and qualified member of the profession. Not all Student Members will go on to become social workers. Completion rates for students undertaking Bachelor of Social Work courses hover are around 64%, with lower completion rates for students who study off-campus, are part-time, are mature-age students, have low ATAR scores or are of low socio-economic status.” (my emphasis)

I find this deeply offensive on many levels. Students are adults. As prospective social workers they have (up until now) had the right to participate in choosing their professional leaders. What is the relevance of ATAR’s and completion rates? Could they have kept the right to vote if they were smarter and more well off? Does the fact that it is “common” elsewhere for students not to vote make it right? Has conformity become a guiding principle of the AASW?

There are around 15,000 social work students in Australia. The AASW has been able to enrol a paltry 10% of these students as members. Our students are graduating into a precarious work environment. Full time permanent jobs are diminishing. Temporary contracts are the norm, and private practitioners’ incomes fluctuate with the whim of government. We need to enrol far more students as members now! Having a commitment to social justice and building the social work profession means being inclusive and fostering diversity. It also means being as democratic as possible.

Moving messy stuff (State Branches, The College, Ethics Committee) into the by laws

The proposal states,

The Australian College of Social .. is not a part of the governance structure of AASW. It is more appropriate that the rules around the College are placed in internal policy documents or the by-laws, rather than in the constitution.


.. branches are not a part of the governance structure of AASW. It is more appropriate that the rules around branch operations are placed in internal policy documents or the ByLaws, rather than in the Constitution.

6.2 The current clauses B15 and B16 regarding payment of capitation fees will be removed. The allocation of the Association’s finances is the responsibility of the Board based on the agreed plan and budget. As the Branches are not separate legal entities, the management and control of funds rests with the AASW Board and under delegated authority to the CEO.


Current rule D20 lists 3 mandatory Board committees. This will be amended so that the only mandatory Board committee will the Finance, Audit & Risk Committee. The Constitution should give the Board flexibility to set up (and cease) other committees as required (my emphasis)

 The Discussion Paper doesn’t bother to tell us what these committees are. And so -a reminder- the 3 committees are Finance, Risk Management and Ethics. In effect, 2 committees are being combined and the Ethics Committee will be banished to the Bylaws or another sub document. Ethics is the main purpose of our profession! Our heart and soul.

Whilst lip service is paid to the Branches, the College and the Code of Ethics , once they are removed from the Constitution to the Bylaws, they can be radically changed or abolished without consulting the membership at all. Any current Board that seeks to reassure that such a thing could never happen, cannot guarantee the action of future Boards.

So why make it possible? The net effect is to unnecessarily centralise power and diminish diversity. The Branches, The College, and our ethics experts need a measure of power, authority and relative independence.

The AASW is a broad church. Whether it be College experts; brilliant researchers; ethicists, branch committees; or mature aged students, struggling to finish their degree whilst keeping food on the table; all are entitled to a voice. We need a constitution that is a platform for a robust exchange of ideas, not a cosy consensus amongst a handful of powerbrokers behind closed doors.

Some of the key values of social work are empowerment, inclusion and participation. Let our structures embody our values. I hope the membership give this emerging monoculture a reality check.

The AASW want the membership to approve these changes at the AGM in Perth in November this year. The consultation process around these proposed changes has been very poor to date.

November update

The AASW is persisting with key elements of its proposals – including abolishing direct voting for President and Vice President, as well banishing the College and Branch Powers to the by laws. (See my more recent blogpost about this)

Please take the time to vote against these proposals. You can do this by going to the AGM in Perth on November 9th, or by filling out a form to give your vote by proxy to someone attending the AGM.
My friend and colleague Brian Wooller will be attending and speaking against the proposals. He is very well known to West Australian members. He has held many positions including West Australian Branch President and National Director. He is also a Life Member. He is happy to collect proxies from any member wishing to vote against the amendments.
Below is the link to a proxy form pre- populated with Brian’s details.

AASW Proxy Form nominating B Wooller

Please print it, fill in your details, scan it or take a photo of it and email it to Brian.

He will ensure it is registered with the AASW before the deadline.

Share this information with fellow members!


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