Policy positions

Policy positions

In our commitment to social justice and human rights, the AASW advocates for key social issues and the profession at many levels, including responding and presenting evidence to government inquiries and royal commissions.

The AASW has advocated with, and in support of, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across a broad range of issues. Some key concerns have been the rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Out of Home Care, the Cashless Welfare Card, criminal justice, Close the Gap targets, Australia Day and Constitutional Recognition. We are particularly concerned at the potential creation of a second Stolen Generation as a result of current Child Protection policies, and a lack of supported, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander -led responses to historical and present issues.

AASW’s Policy Position on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues

Social workers have a long and proud tradition of working with older Australians in supporting positive and healthy ageing, addressing issues of social injustice and advocating for system reforms. We work to raise awareness of the unique needs of older people as citizens as well as care recipients, who are often vulnerable to abuse across multiple domains of life. Our work is based on the strong commitment that every person has the right to wellbeing, self-fulfilment and self-determination, in keeping with the principles underpinning the AASW’s Code of Ethics. Our advocacy aligns with the 1991 United Nations Principles for Older Persons, which are Independence, Participation, Care, Self-Fulfilment and Dignity. We have contributed to inquiries about elder abuse, the Aged Care Workforce Strategy, and the quality of care in residential aged care facilities.

Concern for the wellbeing and protection of children has been a core element of social work practice since the first stages of social work’s emergence as a profession.

Social workers adopt a holistic view of the wellbeing of children and young people and incorporate its broader social context into their assessments and planning.  Social workers observe that children and young people’s wellbeing is connected to issues of poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol policy, family violence, access to health services, intergenerational trauma, and the continuing impact of colonisation and the Stolen Generation.

Social workers in all practice contexts need to be able to promote the wellbeing of children.  This happens directly through their daily practice; as well as indirectly: by advocating for change.  Recognising the shared social responsibility for the safety, health and development of all children, social workers advocate for policies that enable families to support children grow and develop.

Nevertheless, many communities and families face challenges to their ability to provide those conditions.  Social workers in the child and family sector build collaborative partnerships with children, young people, families and communities to identify needs; to build targeted, personalised responses, and to incorporate other services into coherent holistic programs of support.  They deliver relationship-based services, as well as advocating for the interests of vulnerable children, young people and their families to other supports.  An important aspect of this work is that they work towards long term structural change.

The AASW’s rights-based approach to child protection derives from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which states that:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.

In all their work with vulnerable children, young people and their families, AASW members refer to the 3 principles in our Code of Ethics: Respect for Persons, Social Justice and Professional Integrity.  In keeping with the AASW’s vision of providing a strong voice for social justice, the AASW takes an active role in policy reform to advance the wellbeing and protection of children.

Statement of Apology for Past Wrongs.

In its preamble, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises:

the importance of the traditions and cultural values of each people for the protection and harmonious development of the child…

This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have a right to services and supports that are culturally competent and safe.

This principle has not always been adhered to. In 2004 the AASW apologised for past wrongs committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the role of social workers in these wrongs.  The AASW commits itself to collaborating and working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to overturn the continuing injustice towards their peoples, especially with respect to the wellbeing of children.

In 2020, the AASW published its Position Statement on Child Protection. Both of these are available to members through the MyAASW Portal . Non-members can request a copy from [email protected].

In line with our strategic plan and the Code of Ethics the AASW is deeply committed to working towards a sustainable and socially just environment through individual, cultural and structural change. As social workers, we work with communities who are hardest hit by climate change and we appreciate that while climate change is affecting the entire population, the social, health and economic burden is falling most heavily on already vulnerable people.

Disability represents the larger and more complex interaction between an individual with impairment and the structures and processes of society. It is not ‘physical, cognitive or sensory impairments that cause disability, but rather the way in which societies fail to accommodate natural aspects of difference between people’. Therefore, social workers adopt a person-in-environment approach that includes a focus on the structural and cultural factors that may negatively impact on an individual’s ability to engage with the social world.

The social work profession is committed to maximising the wellbeing of individuals, families, groups, communities and society. We consider that individual and societal wellbeing is underpinned by socially inclusive communities that emphasise principles of social justice and respect for human dignity and human rights. These values are in complete accord with the disability advocacy movement and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which both inform the NDIS (AASW, 2016).

The AASW ascribes to the belief that the abuse of alcohol and other drugs are public health concerns, as opposed to criminal justice, and consequently takes a harm minimisation approach to policy work. We work from the principles of social justice and human rights. These principles suggest that adequate, recovery-based care must be offered in treatment, and holistic, systemic preventative measures be built into public services.

Family violence is a gendered, life-threatening crime with serious physical, psychological and economic effectsFamily violence includes not only physical assaults but also an array of power and control tactics used in concert with one another.  While it can be perpetuated by any member of a family against another, it is most commonly perpetrated by men against women (predominately by her current or ex-partner) and children.  Family violence can occur within any intimate relationship, and does occur among groups of every age, religion, culture and ethnicity. 

It is an abuse of human rights which is widely prevalent and completely preventable. 

The causes of family violence are complex and include individual, environmental, cultural, and social factors, such as gender inequality and community attitudes towards women.  As the fundamental cause of violence against women, gender inequality is reflected across all aspects of a woman’s life.  Women experience a range of discriminations, including lower incomes, poor health, and wellbeing outcomes across the lifespan as a consequence of not only violence but structural discrimination based on their gender.  That discrimination has been widely documented in a range of structural settings, and takes a range of forms. such as unequal economic, social, and political power between men and women.   

The effects of domestic and family violence on children cannot be ignored.  Every child whose mother is abused is affected in some way.  A parent who abuses the other parent of their children cannot be considered to be a ‘good’ parent. 

Social workers believe that everyone has a right to live free from fear and violence in their home, and broader society.  In their practice, social workers are deeply committed to challenging family violence at an individual, community, and systemic level, with the twin aims of ending it and of minimising its profound, long-lasting impacts.  They are integral to the delivery of support and intervention services for victims and survivors of family violence.  Many work within specialist family violence organisations, in the family law system or providing counselling and therapeutic supports to victims and survivors.  Social workers in other community and health sector roles are skilled in identifying indicators that a woman, child or young person might be experiencing violence and responding sensitively and appropriately to ensure their safety. 

The AASW’s work to highlight and address all forms of family violence is based on the three values underpinning our Code of Ethics: Respect for Persons, Social Justice and Professional Integrity.  It draws on the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. 

Consistent with the values stated in our Code of Ethics the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals, the AASW supports a fully funded, comprehensive and inclusive Medicare system. Human rights and social justice cannot be achievable in a user-pays system, which results in further-entrenched inequality and disadvantage. Social workers bring a unique, non-medical perspective to health care, with a cultural, systems, person-in-environment focus. We endorse the growing acceptance of the principle that people can exercise informed choice over the services that they will receive. Empowering people to exercise control in their lives is consistent with a rights-based approach to human wellbeing and promotes the principle of self-determination that social work has long upheld. Nevertheless, we understand that ensuring that individuals can exercise choice will not automatically overcome the structural causes of injustice. Such long-term change relies on the work towards broader social goals that has been described above (AASW, 2017).

The principles and aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants focus on the right to adequate, appropriate and affordable housing. The right of individuals and families to have social connections and a sense of place is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a social determinant of health (Lonne, 2008). The AASW states a commitment to Social Justice and Human Rights in our Code of Ethics, the most basic of these being the right to stable, safe and appropriate shelter and housing. The AASW works to maintain awareness of the wider systemic links between homelessness, mental health, family violence, and other public health issues.

The United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that all people have the right to social security, to an adequate standard of living, and “to the continuous improvement of living conditions” (United Nations, 1976) In this context, the appropriate role of government is to create the economic and social conditions under which people can pursue healthy, meaningful and rewarding lives Since Federation, Australia’s income support system has played a central role in creating these conditions The income security system was originally envisaged as a guarantee of security in between periods of employment, ensuring that no-one slipped into homelessness or destitution It has also been instrumental in guaranteeing the cohesive, and inclusive society on which our democracy depends.  

For some social historians, this has been a central element of our national identity:  

“Egalitarianism and an ideal of the ‘fair go’ are at the heart of the Australian social contract and are deeply embedded in the self –understanding of Australians”. 

In accordance with our values of Respect for Persons, Social Justice and Human Rights, social workers maintain that everyone has the right to a social, economic and natural environment in which it is possible to flourish and thrive.  A guarantee of an income at a level that allows for basic levels of nutrition, clothing, shelter and health needs is a necessary precondition for people to attain that right.  The current level of income support payments falls far below that level.  Recognising the rights of income support recipients also means that they should always be treated with respect, and their dignity should be protected.  Previous policies have been punitive and cruel.   

The AASW has consistently advocated for an increase in income support payments and reforms to the compliance regime that accompanies them. We have campaigned against the “robodebt” scheme, cashless debit card, drug-testing for welfare recipients, and repeated punitive federal budgets, and we will continue to do so until they meet that requirement. 

Members can learn more about AASW action at MyAASW. Non-members can make a request to [email protected] 


The AASW draws on the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health as:

… a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community (WHO 2001a, p.1).

The AASW believes that it is time that the national conversation about mental health is changed, starting with the recognition that health is a human right, and that everyone in Australia has a positive right to the highest level of services that are necessary for mental and physical health.

The AASW draws on the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health as: 

 … a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community (WHO 2001a, p.1).    

The AASW believes that it is time that the national conversation about mental health is changed, starting with the recognition that health is a human right, and that everyone in Australia has a positive right to the highest level of services that are necessary for mental and physical health.   

Social and environmental factors and social work

Healthy individuals, families and communities can only be achieved by recognising the importance of the social and environmental factors that contribute to mental health.  The World Health Organization has identified multiple, interacting factors in either promoting or hindering the state of well-being described above.  There is overwhelming evidence that factors such poverty, housing instability, food insecurity, underemployment or unemployment, social isolation, and discrimination are critically important for people’s mental health.  In fact, it is no co-incidence that the elements which contribute so strongly to mental health are named in the International Covenant of Economic Social, and Cultural Rights.   

Human rights and mental health

Recognition of human rights extends to the service system and its treatment of the people within it. For example: either forcing people to take medication or depriving people of their liberty in the course of treating their illness, both represent contraventions of their human rights.   

Social workers and mental health

Social workers take a holistic approach to mental health by addressing all aspects of a person, family or community’s needs.  Conversely, no matter where in the community sector they are employed, the work they undertake contributes to the mental health of the people they work with. 

AASW advocacy for reform of the mental health

A. Accredited Mental Health Social Workers

Social workers play a critical role in the mental health systems and in the Australian community. 40 per cent of Medicare registered social workers (AMHSW’s) are located in regional and remote Australia. They support people experiencing distress and work with the complex nature of mental ill-health through holistic interventions and approaches. This needs to be better reflected in the existing system, as do initiatives which foster new and innovative means of drawing on these critical skills and experience. This includes:

Increasing the Medicare Better Access schedule fee rebated to Medicare registered social workers (AMHSWs); and, Investing in social prescribing initiatives and ensuring qualified social workers are employed in the ‘link worker role’.

B. Holistic Mental Health systems

The AASW’s vision is for a system which is

  • comprehensive,
  • person-centred,
  • accessible,
  • culturally appropriate,
  • staffed by a skilled, multi-disciplinary workforce,
  • informed by lived experience.

And which also:

  • incorporates the lived experience of service users in the co-design, planning, implementation and monitoring of all mental health systems,
  • meets gaps in demand for psychosocial supports;
  • encourages the provision of more group therapy;
  • helps schools support the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health of their students;
  • avoids discharging people with mental illness from hospitals, correctional facilities and institutional care into a situation of homelessness;
  • addresses the shortfall in the number of supported housing places and the gap in homelessness services for people with severe mental illness.


C. Addressing the Social Determinants of Mental Health

Invest in more social housing and providing greater support for renters. This will mitigate homelessness, mental and physical health issues, financial stress and overcrowding. It will also assist families’ financial stability and capacity to plan for long term goals such as educational attainment, and employment plans.

Income, social protection and employment:
Fix our social security system so that it keeps people out of poverty, enables people to maintain a minimum standard of dignity and health and enables people to find work.

Protect the natural environment and address the impact of the climate emergency on mental ill-health and on the social and environmental determinants of health.

The AASW Code of Ethics includes a commitment to respect for human dignity and worth, and to social justice and human rights. These principles underpin our support of the elimination of the policies of mandatory detention, and other forms of harsh, punitive or discriminatory treatment of people seeking asylum and refugees. They apply to our advocacy for humane treatment and adequate support for people in onshore as well as offshore processing centres, and in the community. Our work aligns with multiple United Nations conventions, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (AASW, 2012).

The AASW has advocated successfully for the removal of children from offshore detention facilities. We continue to advocate for the closure of all offshore detention, and demand that all Australian Commonwealth governments into the future fulfill their obligations as signatories of the above mentioned Human Rights Conventions, among others.

Social work is a tertiary qualified profession recognised internationally that pursues social justice and human rights. Social workers aim to enhance the quality of life of every member of society and empower them to develop their full potential. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversity are central to the profession, and are underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and Indigenous knowledges. Professional social workers consider the relationship between biological, psychological, social and cultural factors and how they influence a person’s health, wellbeing and development. Social workers work with individuals, families, groups and communities. They maintain a dual focus on improving human wellbeing; and identifying and addressing any external issues (known as systemic or structural issues) that detract from wellbeing, such as inequality, injustice and discrimination.

Voluntary Assisted Dying is an ethically and legally complex issue with significant professional and personal considerations for social workers. While there are a range of views within the professional social work community, all practice in this space needs to be driven by the appropriate legal and ethical frameworks, including the relevant legislation and the AASW’s Code of Ethics.

Professional social workers are employed in a wide range of health settings working with individuals and families in acute care settings, palliative care, and long term care providing a range of supports around issues such as end-of-life and grief and loss. They are directly involved in socio-legal issues and ethical decision making, for example: advanced care planning, enduring power of attorneys, end-of-life decision making and planning, cessation of medical interventions and organ donation. As members of interdisciplinary teams, social workers play a significant role in addressing the social and emotional aspects and impacts of a person’s condition. This also includes providing supports to family members and loved ones. Therefore, Voluntary Assisted Dying is of relevance to social workers and within their scope of practice.