The Role of Ethics Committees in South Australian Parliament

There is considerable appeal in the notion of a code of conduct at a time when perceptions of parliamentarians are at a low ebb. However, the committee does not think that a code of this kind will improve these perceptions.

The committee favours oversight mechanisms involving a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner reporting to a rebadged Privileges, Ethics and Members’ Interests Committee. These include a complaints process and sanctions.

Ethics Committees

The role of ethics committees is to ensure that researchers conduct their research in a way that maximises social benefits and minimises potential harm to people who participate. Ethics committees help to guide research by reviewing the application, discussing the proposal with researchers and assessing whether the research is ethical. They also monitor the progress of a research project by considering any amendments or possible ethical issues, and they review research outcomes to make sure that participants are protected.

In Australia, ethics committees are the responsibility of state governments. In addition, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) sets certification standards for institutional research ethics committees. NHMRC also provides guidelines for multi-centre research involving human participants. Most Australian ethics committees are a mixture of state and territory representatives and independent members.

There is an increasing focus on the need to improve perceptions of parliament and parliamentary standards. Various suggestions have been put forward, including codes of conduct for parliamentarians.

The House Committee on Integrity and Dispute Resolution recently released a discussion paper on the topic. The paper canvasses a range of issues and proposes a set of reform measures. These include the introduction of a code of conduct for parliamentarians, a complaints procedure, an investigative role for a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner reporting to a rebadged Privileges, Ethics and Members’ Interests Committee and the imposition of sanctions for breaches.

Central Adelaide Local Health Network is one of the six metropolitan Local Health Networks that support a local human research ethics committee. SA Health HRECs review and monitor research involving the use of their staff, resources or clients. HRECs are required to follow the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, and the NHMRC Code of Practice for the Responsible Conduct of Research. The CALHN HREC has also committed to working within the NMA. The NMA aims to achieve consistency across the national research governance and ethics process. Applicants are encouraged to contact their local HREC to discuss their proposed research. DHW researchers are also advised to read the Research GEMS information document on how to submit research governance/ethics applications for a CALHN site.

Complaints Process

The Central Adelaide Local Health Network Human Research Ethics Committee (CALHN HREC) is a South Australian public health sector research ethics committee that protects the rights and welfare of people involved in human research. The CALHN HREC is accredited under the National Mutual Acceptance Scheme and oversees research that involves human participants conducted by the CALHN, its staff or external researchers. Research involving higher than low/negligible risk is required to be submitted to the CALHN HREC prior to commencement of the research.

The CALHN HREC complies with the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and is a member of the Australian Human Research Ethics Advisory Council. The CALHN HREC is one of the four South Australian HRECs that is part of the SA Health Single Ethical Review Model. The CALHN HREC is responsible for ensuring that all research undertaken by the CALHN and its researchers complies with the National Statement and applicable legislation and policy.

People who are unhappy with the way a business, organisation or government department has behaved or handled their affairs should try to resolve the issue directly with that entity. This is usually the best and quickest way to resolve a complaint.

If you have not been able to resolve your complaint directly with the entity you should then contact the relevant Ombudsman. The Commonwealth Ombudsman deals with complaints about the actions of Commonwealth government departments and the South Australian Ombudsman deals with complaints about State government agencies.

You can also petition either House of Parliament. This is a long established right of all citizens in Australia to request that Parliament take specific action. Petitioning Parliament is one of the few direct means of communication between the people and their elected representatives in a democracy. For more information on how to make a petition see the Petition Guide for the Legislative Council or the Petition Guide for the House of Assembly.

Oversight

A major function of ethics committees is to oversee the research they endorse. This involves ensuring that the researchers adhere to the ethical principles and guidelines set out in the National Statement, and that they do not compromise the integrity of their work. It also involves monitoring the progress of the research and examining any amendments to the project that may be required.

Ethics committees are often under-resourced, and it is not possible for them to provide educational materials or training for potential researchers. This is one of the reasons why NHMRC has established a series of webinars for its members. The seminars address topics such as identifying a good research question, developing the study protocol, and conducting effective consultation with participants.

While it is not the responsibility of ethics committees to educate potential researchers, they can help by providing acceptable wording for standard sections of a consent form or patient information sheet. They can also publish a list of acceptable terms for waiving the right to privacy, and they can provide guidance for the review of complex or novel research areas.

Another important function of ethics committees is to ensure that the research meets community expectations. This can be difficult, particularly when a study concerns the interests of particular groups or individuals. In Australia, for example, indigenous research often provokes criticism that it is driven by exploitation born of colonialism. Similarly, researchers studying the health of ethnically diverse populations may face challenges with communication and cultural appropriateness.

Finally, the oversight function of ethics committees includes ensuring that the decisions they make are transparent and accountable. They do this by reporting to their relevant governing body, and through their audit function. In addition, they must also comply with the rules and regulations of their respective parliamentary bodies. This is a necessary and important part of the ethics process, and it is a key element of ensuring that the people of South Australia can trust their representatives. The public need to be confident that the decisions made by their representatives are taken in an open and impartial manner, and this can only be achieved by transparency and accountability.

Reporting

The Ethics Committee is responsible for monitoring the ethical conduct of research conducted by the Central Adelaide Local Health Network, as per the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007 and accreditation under the National Mutual Acceptance Scheme. The Ethics Committee will be responsible for ensuring that all research undertaken by staff and external researchers is in accordance with the above and relevant legislative and policy requirements.

The Senators’ Interests Committee notes that there is no evidence to support the view that codes of conduct have improved community perceptions of parliamentary behaviour. Rather, the Committee suspects that the code of conduct simply gives the appearance that members are held to higher standards than they would otherwise be without it.

Codes of conduct may range from those that simply set out general standards of conduct to those which prescribe specific and detailed rules pertaining to particular situations. The former are often described as ‘aspirational codes’ whilst the latter contain enforceable provisions that must be met, usually supported by a mechanism for investigating breaches and imposing penalties.

The Senate’s Ethics and Privileges Committee has discussed this issue, as have a number of other committees including the Estimates Committee, and the Privacy Committee. The latter is currently examining the possibility of adopting an enforceable code of conduct that could be enforced by a rebadged Privacy Commissioner reporting to a new Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner and/or a new Privileges, Ethics and Members’ Interests Committee, with a wide range of investigative powers.

During 2022-23, the Privacy Committee continued to meet online and conduct urgent business out of session, with most of its work related to notifications of personal information breach. The committee has also recently started to consult on the development of a new Information Privacy Principles Instruction for State government agencies. In addition, the committee is in the process of reviewing its role following the recent high-profile publicity over parliamentary privacy breaches. More details can be found on the Committee’s website.