HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.52 pm]: I rise because I want to say a few words about, and draw to people’s attention to, the fact that today is World Social Work Day, and members may have received notification around this. This year’s theme is “Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships”. The idea of the day being run internationally is to raise awareness of the social work profession, and for the broader community to support the vital work that we know social workers are doing. As they try to point out, social workers are seen in a wide variety of settings. I am particularly interested in the social work activity that occurs primarily around the health, mental health, child protection, aged care, disability and family violence spaces, in which the work that the social workers undertake is incredibly important.
I have been pushing for quite some time for the registration of the social work profession, and this is as a direct result of the hard work of the Australian Association of Social Workers, which has been trying to register social work formally since, effectively, the 1960s. The reason it wants to do that is social workers are highly trained. Most of the time, their degrees take four years to earn. Social workers are trained to deal appropriately with people who are at deep risk, who often have quite serious mental health issues and are often going through periods of enormous trauma. Therefore, it is important that they are well trained to assist people who are going through periods of crisis, because if they do not know what they are doing, frankly, they can do far more harm than good.
For many years, the Australian Association of Social Workers has been advocating for registration because it wants to highlight the effects that substandard, unethical or even unqualified practice can cause, and is causing, to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. I have noted with great interest what has been happening in South Australia and the efforts being made there to ensure that social workers become registered. My parliamentary counterpart in South Australia Tammy Franks has introduced a bill into the state Parliament with a huge amount of support from the Australian Association of Social Workers to finally have social workers registered. That has gained momentum in South Australia, tragically, as a direct result of not one but two coroner’s cases in which it was found that substandard practice around social workers contributed to deaths. That, members, is one of the things that we need to realise. We are talking about people working in extremely volatile and very sensitive settings who really need to know what they are doing because it can be not just that lives are harmed but that lives are lost. That is what is at stake when we talk about the need to register social workers.
At the moment, there is a self-registration framework for social workers, but only one-third of people who call themselves social workers are members of the Australian Association of Social Workers. That means that two-thirds of the profession is operating outside of any clear regulatory framework. Australia is out of step on this internationally. In comparable countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, social work is a registered profession. That is because registration matters for public safety and registration entitlement protection helps to define who is qualified to perform particular activities and, in so doing, creates a mechanism for preventing people who do not have the relevant qualifications from practising. Importantly, it also means that sanctions can be imposed for incompetent practice. It also helps to ensure ongoing professional quality. That is achieved by monitoring the education practice standards; for example, the national registration and accreditation scheme compels registered professionals to maintain a program of continuing professional development. Of course, it is also about professional accountability and recognition. Registration incorporates mechanisms for the investigation of and sanctions for professional misconduct. Registration entitlement protection also provides a basis for the public recognition of the scope of practice in which professions are engaged.
As I mentioned, I originally started pursuing this issue at the behest of the Australian Association of Social Workers under the Barnett government. At that point, there had been some discussions at the Council of Australian Governments meetings but there was not much appetite to pursue registration. That is why we are now contemplating at the state level whether we can at least shift the standards in Western Australia. Today in question time I asked the minister representing the Minister for Health, Hon Roger Cook, whether the McGowan government also supports the introduction of a registration scheme for social workers. This is not the first time I have raised the issue in this term of Parliament; I have raised it previously. The response I received was that this would be looked at to see whether there was merit in pursuing the idea. I am very disappointed that in response to the question I got today, the minister has, effectively, indicated that this government has no appetite at all to pursue the registration of social workers. The answer I got to the question of why it would not be pursued was —
The national registration and accreditation scheme is primarily to protect the public through a risk-based approach to professional regulation for health practitioners. Social work is one of a number of allied health professions that work in many community services sectors outside of health care. Social workers and a number of other allied health professionals, such as speech pathologists, currently operate under self-regulation arrangements through peak representative organisations.
I am really disappointed with that response. I do not think it is an appropriate response, because it fails to recognise the particular vulnerabilities of working with people with mental health issues in particular. The fact is that people may lose their lives. This is why I am pointing out that there have already been two coroner’s recommendations in South Australia arising from the issue of regulation as a direct result of deaths that have occurred. I think this is something that it is beholden on this government to take a little more seriously. I am also raising and will continue to raise concerns about the fact that we do not have registration for psychotherapists or counsellors, because we have similar issues and concerns. People just put out a shingle and say, “Look at me; I’m a mental health professional”, without having the foggiest clue about what they should be doing when they are dealing with very, very vulnerable people. It strikes me that this is a very important and very easy first step. Social work is something that is properly achieved through university, and either people have a degree or they do not. Quite frankly, if people have not been trained appropriately as social workers, they should not be able to practise. They should not be able to call themselves a social worker, and very, very vulnerable people and vulnerable situations should not be exposed to them. In those instances in which people are qualified to be social workers but catastrophically fail in their jobs, they should be struck off. That is the sort of criteria I am subject to as a lawyer and that is appropriate, yet I do not necessarily have people’s lives in my hands.
I hope the government is prepared to reconsider this position. I do not think it is the correct position to take. However, I hope all members are prepared to acknowledge the amazing work our social workers do. They do not earn a lot of money but they are very dedicated to the work they do. We know that right now while we are dealing with the pandemic as it unfolds, there has never been a more important time to have our social workers being able to do the best jobs they possibly can.