Designing the welfare quilt, Alison Gray

The Fabric of Welfare: Voluntary Organisations, Government and Welfare in New Zealand, 1840-2005
Margaret Tennant   
Bridget Williams Books, $49.99, 
ISBN 9781877242373

Margaret Tennant has added another patch to the ever-expanding quilt of publications documenting the social history of New Zealand. Her latest book builds on her essay on the same topic in Past Judgement (2004), which she co-edited with Bronwyn Dalley. The essay was a template; this is the fully rendered version, complete with cameos and 35 pages of notes and a summary of the interview with Mervyn Hancock that appeared in 2004.

The book sits seamlessly alongside earlier contributions, which is one of its strengths but also a challenge for the general reader. Anyone who has read Tennant’s earlier work, or followed the writings of social historians like Margaret McClure, Bronwyn Dalley, Linda Bryder and Bronwyn Labrum will be familiar with the concepts Tennant discusses and the organisations that she uses to illustrate her arguments. In a country the size of New Zealand, it’s probably not surprising that Plunket, IHC, Prisoners Aid, the Maori Women’s Welfare League and the delightful Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society feature so regularly in social histories.

The debate about welfare provision has all the attributes of a well-designed quilt – a repetitive pattern with plenty of opportunity for variation and complexity, interesting detail, a level of idiosyncracy and a sense of timelessness. The debate about the balance between self help and state welfare provision has been going for centuries, although, as Tennant points out, the nature of migration to New Zealand lent some support to the call for more state responsibility in the early years of European settlement, particularly in providing work or relief in hard economic times. It is ironic but not surprising that 140 years later, as the global economic crisis deepens, similar calls have resurfaced.

Discussion about the deserving and undeserving poor has also rolled around over the years, with both charities and governments exercising different degrees of selectivity, depending on their world view, religious basis or political ideology. While broader government provision and advocacy by voluntary organisations have undermined some of those distinctions, the hierarchy of judgement is still apparent in the criteria for eligibility for various benefits and in the allocation of funding to organisations.

Tennant details the ongoing tension between the voluntary and state sectors as charities seek state support for their work and the state seeks to control what charities do and for whom. Each era has had its own flavour – direct political patronage in the early days, the influence of lottery funding after the war, with all the associated potential for manipulation and discrimination; the “partnership” approach of the 1970s, which masked imbalances of power and had the potential to distort service priorities and, most recently, the move to contracting where government intervention is explicit, accountability is the order of the day and voluntary organisations that are not prepared to work in that model find it difficult to survive. Volunteering has become more challenging too, as organisations are required to meet occupational safety and health standards, workers need training and/or professional qualifications, and the option to save native birds and trees becomes more attractive than working with battered women or the mentally ill.

The recurring threads of gender and responsiveness to Maori form a pattern across the chapters. Women have always been involved in the caring aspects of voluntary work. Now they are encouraged to be in paid work, and the supply of volunteers is probably as restricted as it was in the early days of settlement. Maori, on the other hand, have strengthened their ability to respond to the welfare needs of their people through iwi and community-based services. They have made a convincing case for diversity in welfare provision. Long may that view reign.

Tennant has produced a detailed, scholarly work that will be useful for historians and those who want more detail about the voluntary sector but its attractions are rather diminished by the fact that many of the arguments have already been made and much of the information is available elsewhere. Nor is she helped by the design of the book. The print is small, and the layout is cramped, making a demanding read rather less enticing.


Alison Gray is a Wellington social researcher. 


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