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InPsych 2016 | Vol 38

Special report

The quest to professionalise psychology and register psychologists

As post-war psychology grew it remained vulnerable because anyone could call themselves a psychologist. To highlight the learning and expertise of genuine psychologists, the profession needed to impose standards of learning, behaviour and conduct, regulating who could qualify to call themselves a psychologist. The new Society drove this campaign for quality from the beginning.

Without regulation, psychology’s reputation as a discipline, as well as that of psychologists and their work, was increasingly vulnerable to misappropriation and exploitation. Formal professionalisation of psychology, through the creation of codes of ethics, regulation and registration of psychologists took place in a series of stages over a number of years.

By 1949, the then Branch (of the British Psychological Society) had its own a code of ethics, putting it ahead of its British and American counterparts, whose respective codes were developed later. This demonstrated how serious the Australian psychological establishment was about ensuring the quality of its practitioners. Some years later, in 1961-2, the ‘Mrs X’ affair tested its regulatory regime and the relationship between the BPS and its Australian Branch. Mrs X, a Branch member, made contentious claims about psychology in an advert in a religious newspaper, the South Australian Methodist. She claimed that psychological counselling could treat “chronic complaints”, including “cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, migrane [sic], sinusitis, skin complaints, lack of energy, advancing deafness, blindness etc”.

Recognising the damage such unfounded claims could do the emerging profession, the Branch sought Mrs X’s expulsion by the BPS. However the BPS was reluctant to take such drastic action against a member. Ultimately, though, the Branch prevailed and Mrs X was expelled. The affair had a number of consequences. It succeeded in driving the Branch further from its parent and towards independence, and it helped distinguish the Australian profession from the British one by demonstrating that Australian psychologists were serious about implementing high standards for their members and the profession and were not afraid to impose them.

Shortly after, in 1966, the Victorian Government, through its efforts to thwart Scientology, became the first State to register psychologists. The other States gradually began to require registration of psychologists, using the Victorian Act as the template. (This culminated in the Australian Capital Territory passing the 1994 Psychologists Act in 1995.) However, in the 1970s and 1980s, various governments subsequently backtracked on these efforts, which once again opened up psychology to the risk of exploitation. Perhaps this is why, in 1972, the APS declared itself in favour of protecting the title of psychologist. By 1982, the Victorian Government repealed the sections of the Psychological Practices Act that affected Scientology. In effect, this loosened the regulation so that a range of professions in addition to psychologists were allowed to undertake “psychological practice”. As well as Scientologists, this included teachers, doctors and clergy.

In States that did not have registration legislation in place, the Society’s Committee on Ethical and Professional Standards (CEPS) was the only body to which an aggrieved client could complain. In the years before the introduction of registration, NSW supplied a large number of complaints to CEPS, which was more than just a stop-gap entity. It provided general advice as well as adjudicating on specific cases. Its Code of Professional Conduct was a living document. The ethical demands placed on members became more elaborate during the 1980s, as the Society found itself dealing with the expansion of private practice and demand for greater specificity in the Code, which was revised in 1986. New versions of the Code were developed in 1997 and 2007.

Despite the States regulating psychology, these Acts were not foolproof and could not prevent members of the public from being exploited by fringe practitioners. In 1979, Denis Kiellerup, Executive Director of the APS, complained that the stringent Victorian Act, the parent to the subsequent other State acts, had been unable to prevent unqualified individuals from practising. This was especially relevant in NSW, home to the largest number of practising psychologists. The APS campaigned long and hard for psychologists to be registered in the last of the States to resist registration and was ultimately successful. NSW finally registered its first psychologists in August 1990.

The difficult path to registration of psychologists in New South Wales is evidence of the Society’s determination to see legislation introduced in all States and Territories. It also showed that the APS was at the mercy of political forces beyond its control in its campaign to make psychology a regulated profession. The willingness of the Society to embrace regulation, even despite the political difficulties it created, suggests a recognition that the Society was at the time simply not powerful enough to define who had the right to be recognised as a psychologist. Nevertheless, registration was only one of the strategies of improvement pursued by the Society, which continued to set standards for its members.


The primary source (including edited extracts) for this article was A Meeting of Minds by Simon Cooke (Australian Psychological Society, 2000).

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on February 2016. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.