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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7237

Senator HARRADINE (9:54 AM) —First of all, I will deal with this quite clearly. What is being said here is not correct. I will have a look at what the Minister for Health and Ageing said in this chamber on Tuesday, 3 December. I raised this question about the human research ethics committee. I did so following the emphasis that the minister has constantly given to the structure and the fact that it is based on the institutional ethics committee's decision. The minister says here to us today that they do not make the decision. If they do not make the decision, then why does the minister say:

Before an application can be made to the NHMRC Licensing Committee, it must first be evaluated and approved by an institutional human research ethics committee ...

That is the decision. If it is not so approved then the licensing committee cannot deal with it. So it is effectively the decision making body. The minister shakes her head, but she has said it here.

Senator Patterson —I haven't.

Senator HARRADINE —Minister Patterson says she has not. Let me read it:

Before an application can be made to the NHMRC Licensing Committee, it must first be evaluated and approved by an institutional human research ethics committee ...

Senator Patterson —The licensing committee might say no. Don't you understand?

Senator HARRADINE —It might say no; it might say yes. The point is that what you have been saying here through all of this debate is that the essential feature is: `Don't worry. It's going to be dealt with by the institutional ethics committee.' Bear in mind that it is the applicant who is appointing the institutional ethics committee. That is bizarre. All I am asking, with these amendments, is for transparency in respect of the decisions or evaluations that are undertaken by this key committee. I am not going to waste my time, because the minister is obviously not acting in accordance with the COAG decision. The COAG decision is perfectly clear that to be accountable there must be transparency and the whole system must be accountable to the public. That is the word: accountable. How can they be accountable if the information is not supplied?

Let me finalise by saying something that has been said—that is, that it is a secretive society. All of this matter is going to be undertaken in secret, except after the NHMRC Licensing Committee decisions are made. I will read from the Hansard of 24 September. One witness to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, who ought to know about it, said:

We do have a culture here with the Human Research Ethics Committee and the NHMRC, and now this licensing authority ... There is not openness in reporting or stringent reporting requirements, so you have got no reporting of, for instance, the Human Research Ethics Committee's decisions or anything like that. The public does not have access to those. So we have got a fairly secretive culture, a non-consultative culture. In fact, the institutions will defend that in terms of their own commercial interests and so on and also their interests in not having public scrutiny.

This is a very vital matter and I will be extremely disappointed if the ALP has decided, in some back room or another, to oppose this need for complete transparency by the institutional ethics committee, which is appointed by the applicant for the licence! It is a shame. It is obvious that the minister is just following the NHMRC. The minister herself was clearly not aware that the reporting and evaluation provided by the ethics committee would not be public. She was not aware of that on 3 December. She said to the committee when I pressed the issue:

The answer is that the licensing committee receives that information—

that is, the information from the human research ethics committee—

but it is not necessarily available to the public.

There is no point in proceeding. I seek leave to withdraw amendments (8A), (8B) and (8C) on sheet 2751 revised 2. I will be dealing with this matter in another forum.

Leave granted.