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Keith Wiffen & Stephen Winter: On the advisory group, Part 2

On 7 March 2019, the Royal Commission released information about the application process for appointing members of the Survivor Advisory Group. This call for applications provides new information about how the Advisory Group will operate.

It appears that there will just be one Survivor Advisory Group. This is a significant change. The Commission’s Terms of Reference say that there could be two or more groups. We can see advantages to different groups of survivors taking responsibility for different areas of concern. Previously, it was possible to imagine a distinctly Māori advisory group or different advisory groups representing survivors of state or faith-based care. The Royal Commission must attend to the diverse experiences and needs of a range of survivors and it remains to be seen if a single group can reflect that diversity.

That said, both survivors and the Commission may benefit from having a single body speaking for survivors. Having a single advisory group may help ensure that the Commission receives consistent advice. Moreover, the fact that there is only one Group does not necessarily mean a lack of diversity. The Survivor Advisory Group should contain a range of voices and experiences including different care experiences, as well as diversities of ethnicity, sexuality, ability, gender and geography. Nevertheless, we think this is a missed opportunity for the Commission to deliver on its mandate to work in “partnership with iwi and Māori”.

Members of the Survivor Advisory Group will be paid. Members will be undertaking demanding, difficult and important tasks and it is only fair that they be paid for their work. Payment will help ensure that group membership remains open to people who otherwise could not participate because they need to work to pay the bills. With that in mind, it would be nice to know how much members of the Advisory Group will be paid. Will these payments be salaries, retainers or koha? Answering that question will make a big difference to potential applicants.

The call for applications suggests the Advisory Group will have a meeting schedule of ‘at least’ four face-to-face meetings per year, but that the Group may meet more often and in different fashions. It is our opinion that the advisory group should set an independent meeting schedule. Those meetings should address any matters the Commission refers to it, but the Group should approach its tasks proactively and independently. It is good to see that this call for applications has not said too much about how the Advisory Group will operate—for that is something the Advisory Group should decide for itself.

Members of a successful advisory group will need to manage three different relationships. In the first respect they will need to serve as effective representatives of survivors, giving voice to their experience and concerns. Secondly, they will need to be effective in their relationship with the Commission, serving as an authoritative voice in the workings of the Commission and helping ensure that the survivors’ experience becomes part of the working culture within the Commission. Thirdly, to be successful in these roles, it is very important that members of the Advisory Group develop effective relationships with one another. Regular contact with one another will ensure that they become stronger together.

Appointments are for an initial term of 18 months, after which the groups will be “refreshed”. What that means is uncertain, but presumably an initial 18-month term will give the Group members and the Commission a chance to work out how they will work together. Perhaps some members will be re-appointed, while others will not. We would hope that the Advisory Group would have a strong voice throughout that process. It would be a shame if the ‘refreshing’ process were to result in the loss of experienced and powerful survivor voices.

The Advisory Group need not be the only form of survivor representation within the Commission. Recalling that no survivor was appointed as a Commissioner, the Commission might appoint one or two survivors to serve as kaiārahi, in addition to the Advisory Group. Kaiārahi could work with Commission staff on a continuing basis to ensure its procedures are appropriate for survivors and assist as issues arose, this might include liaising with community groups, the media and the Advisory Group. Having survivors embedded within the Commission would enhance its culture, and help it build trusting relationships with survivors.

In conclusion, it is good to see the Commission moving forward with this important development. The Survivor Advisory Group will be crucial to the Commission’s credibility with survivors in Aotearoa. If done correctly, it will be an essential component in ensuring the Commission remains survivor-focused. Applications for membership of the Group will close on 31 March. Advisors will be appointed in April and expected to attend a first meeting in May. That will be none too soon.

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