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Keith Wiffen & Stephen Winter: On the advisory groups

The inquiry will establish an advisory group or groups comprising survivors of abuse in State care and in the care of faith-based institutions that, from time to time, will provide assistance to inquiry members. These groups will help the inquiry focus on victims and survivors by ensuring the voices of survivors are heard and recognised by the inquiry. At the inquiry’s request, the groups may be asked to provide feedback on matters the inquiry is considering. (The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions Order 2018)


An advisory group of survivors is a key element of the Royal Commission’s hope to be ‘survivor-oriented’. The terms of reference state that an advisory group, or groups, will assist the inquiry by ensuring the voices of survivors are ‘heard and recognised’. The role of these groups will be very important. However, as yet, they do not exist. As the Commission begins its journey, we do not yet know who will be members of these groups, how they will be established or what powers they will have.


This is an important matter. The Commission is already establishing a kaupapa. It is holding meetings with ‘stakeholders’, identifying issues that it will investigate, and has published a “mission statement”. The foundation blocks for the Commission are being laid and, as yet, there is no advisory group involved in its design or development.


This article offers a brief overview of some issues relevant to the composition of advisory groups. Its guiding concern is that advisory groups must be created in a way that makes them representative, independent and effective. These points are critical to getting successful Commission outcomes for survivors and those in care today.


How should the groups be constituted?

The terms of reference do not specify how the advisory groups are to be created. If groups are to have significant powers they must be formally constituted. If they are an informal collection of survivors, each of whom may or not be consulted on any particular issue, the advisory groups will lack effective power.


Members of the advisory groups should come from varied backgrounds and experiences, so they represent different institutional and care experiences, iwi, ethnicities, locations and gender identities. While the Commission will appoint members of the groups, the Commission should also consult with survivor groups on who the members should be.

An advisory group’s members should collectively exercise mana. They may need to be able to ‘stand up’ to the Commission and other powerful players. There may be an argument for the groups to have legal, research and secretarial (and perhaps other) support to ensure they have a strong and independent voice.


The terms of references leave open the possibility of there being two or more groups. In part, this reflects some concern that the Commission will need to work in different ways with varied survivor groups, including survivors of faith-based organisations, and the need for culturally appropriate engagements with Māori as partners in the process. That may be the best solution. However, that strategy risks dividing the voices of survivors and diminishing their impact. If there are two or more advisory groups, survivors risk losing the advantage of mutual support.


What should an advisory group do?

This question is for the advisory group to decide. However it would be good for these groups to provide high level strategic advice on the Commission’s development. This advice might include directing the Commission to investigate particular institutions or practices.


An advisory group can also serve as a go-between for survivors, and identify specific tasks for the Commission to undertake. Equally, they can assess future or ongoing work for problems. Commission officials may not know the effects of their decisions on survivors and their families, and an advisory group can provide feedback and assistance to develop practices that minimise harm to survivors and maximise benefits. In addition, an advisory group can serve as a watchdog over the Commission, and ‘sound the alarm’ if something goes wrong.


A few things are important in ensuring an advisory group retains its mana. First, it members must avoid being advocates for individual cases. This may not be easy. However, examples overseas, like in Ireland, suggest that when advisory members become advocates for particular individuals, they lose their ability to represent all survivors. Of course, advisors should be informed about any problems survivors confront, but their engagement with the Commission might focus on policy and procedures, not the prosecution of individual cases.


A second and perhaps more important point is that an advisory group should meet independently of the Commission. If, as the terms of reference hint, the advisory groups will meet only when the Commission wishes it to and only with regard to issues the Commission refers to them, then the groups will lack valuable independence. It would be better for any advisory group to establish an independent schedule of meetings during which it responds to any matters raised by the Commission, but also works independently; raising and discussing issues on its own behalf.


Finally, to be effective, an advisory group’s engagement with the Commission will require a constructive working relationship. Positive change is more likely to follow from an advisory group whose sober, independent and considered judgment is conveyed in ways that seek to assist the Commission. To make that happen, the advisory group needs to convey advice in an authoritative and deliberate manner. The groups should consider how they can best offer constructive feedback and suggestions. One obvious option would be to schedule regular meetings with Commissioners.


The inclusion of survivors into the ‘hardwiring’ of the Commission will enhance the Commission’s culture and be important to getting positive outcomes. The Commission will change in make-up and focus over its lifespan. The advisory groups will be crucial to keeping it focussed on the needs of survivors.

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