The predominant function of Australian clinical ethics committees (CECs) is policy formation. Some committees have an educational role. Few committees play any direct role in advising on ethics in the management of individual patients and this occurs only in exceptional circumstances. There is a tendency to exaggerate both the number and function of committees. It is suggested that studies of ethics committees, based on questionnaire surveys, should be interpreted cautiously. An examination of ethical issues indicates that there is a role for a critical analysis of power relations in Australian hospitals that is not fulfilled by CECs.