Writings: Blowing the whistle on Biosecurity Queensland’s misleading fire ant program reports: they over-state success and don’t report serious problems. Problems remain.

In March 2003, I complained to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) that the Department of Primary Industries’ reports on the fire ant program (DPI, now home to Biosecurity Queensland), prepared for the Commonwealth and other States governments that fund the program, over-state the program’s success and do not report serious problems that threatened the program. The CMC allowed DPI to investigate my complaint. DPI found no substance to it and I lost my job. Now, Biosecurity Queensland continues to overstate the success of the program and the serious problems that threatened the program in 2003 still do: ineffective surveillance and containment programs means Biosecurity Queensland cannot find fire ants or stop them spreading, there is still no evidence that fire ant treatments work and because Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable performance data, Biosecurity Queensland still cannot support any claims of success. The public, the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments can have no confidence in Biosecurity Queensland’s reports on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, nor can they have confidence that approximately $400m of public money, so far, has not been wasted. It is still not safe for program staff to try to tell the public the truth. So, I write these blogs, based on program reports and reviews that I have accessed under Right to Information procedures, to tell the public the truth about Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant fiasco. 21st November 2017

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An organisational psychologist, I joined the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) in 1987 as a training and development officer. I worked with staff and producers all around the State.  When fire ants were first detected at the Port of Brisbane and the south-western suburb of Richlands in February 2001, I joined the fire ant emergency response team to liaise with businesses and residents already infested by fire ants and with those who would be affected by any program to fight fire ants.

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program kicked off September 2001 after the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments agreed to fund a program to eradicate one of the world’s worst invasive pests. The Queensland Department of Primary Industries would implement the program and I was program’s Policy Officer. My job was to draft the reports on the program’s progress for the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments that were paying for it. I used the regular reports of the program’s operational managers to construct a draft report for the program Director to edit and sign.

By June 2002, I was getting concerned that we were not telling the program funders the full story. I emailed the Director, saying, ‘It seems to me that it will be obvious to even blind Freddy that our reports are becoming increasingly vague, especially in relation to treatment.’ I was concerned that our numbers did not add up. I also said. ‘I am becoming quite concerned that as we reduce the amount of information we are providing stakeholders we are getting close to the point where we could be accused of misinforming them….. I have been committed to the project for a long time. Please accept my concern in that spirit.’ The Director did not share my concerns.  Apparently, obfuscation is not the same as mis-representation.

I also raised my concerns with the DPI auditor who reviewed the program and the Commonwealth’s Chief Plant Protection Officer who was responsible for monitoring the program.  I also sent unedited progress reports to the Minister’s office. The only thing that happened was I lost my job as Policy Officer.

Three things made me take the next step of blowing the whistle on the program: to make a public interest disclosure that the Queensland government was mis-reporting the program’s progress to the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments that fund the program.

Firstly, in December 2002, I took the minutes of the meeting where the program Director systematically dismantled all the recommendations made by the first independent scientific review team. The review team was concerned about the program’s lack of any sense of urgency and they made twenty-three recommendations to address the numerous problems they saw. The Director rejected them all.

Next, by early 2003, wetlands associated with Blunder Creek, a major tributary of the Brisbane river and close to the Fire Ant Control Centre in the south-western suburb of Oxley, were found to be very heavily infested with fire ants. Program scientists invited me to inspect the infestation. I was shocked to see the forest of pink flags that the scientists use to mark nests sticking up through the wetland’s reeds and grasses. The infestation was as bad as anything the scientists had found so far. But even more shocking was the fact that, according to the program’s treatment records, this wet-land area had been treated several times already. This meant that either the treatment records were wrong and these wet-land had not been treated, or the bait had not been spread properly or the bait just did not work: and there was no way of knowing what went wrong.  The Blunder Creek infestation was stark proof to me that the program was failing and would continue to fail while the problems the first science review team identified and the mis-reporting continued. 

And finally, my first grand-child was about to turn one year old and I did not want her, or the brother she now has, and their generation, to be living with fire ants.

The Queensland Government’s Code of Conduct required me to disclose any wrong-doing I might observe and the Queensland Whistleblowers Protection Act (1994) was supposed to keep me safe while I did. I had been a public servant a long time and was not naïve enough to believe these sorts of assurances. But I thought, ‘I’ve already lost my job. What more can they do to me?’

So, in March 2003 I made a public interest disclosure to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) and Premier Beattie that ‘the public, the Parliament…..the Commonwealth and other States and Territories are being misled by reports that over-state the success of the program by omitting to report the serious issues that continue to threaten the success of the program.’   I supported my claim with evidence of serious problems, each one threatening the program, that operational managers had raised, but were not clearly reported to the funding agencies. They were:

  • The diversion of staff away from the surveillance effort into the treatment effort.
  • No evidence of the effectiveness of the treatment methods because the trial sites had been destroyed.
  • Not reporting areas within the Treatment Area that had not been treated and not reporting new detections or re-infestations occurring within the Treatment Area.
  • The lack of any comprehensive containment program, and
  • The inability of the Fire Ant Information System to support the program.

The CMC referred my public interest disclosure back to DPI to investigate: the CMC allowed Caesar to judge Caesar.  DPI engaged an investigator from Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) to examine my complaint. I was shocked when I read the final report in December 2003. The PWC investigator found that ‘Whilst all allegations may have valid issues within them, the scope of my review was limited to assessing whether any of those allegations included evidence that the true situation within Fire Ant Control Centre (FACC) was not reported to the Fire Ant Steering Committee.’ In other words, DPI had changed the terms of my disclosure and limited the scope of the PWC investigation to whether, my boss the program Director, was fully reporting to his boss, the Deputy Director General and Chair of the DPI Fire Ant Steering Committee. The PWC investigator found that ‘The Chair of the Fire Ant Steering Committee was aware of all the issues raised by Dr Swepson.’ and therefore, there was no substance to my complaint of mis-reporting.

The fact remains that both the program Director and the DDG were aware of the serious problems raised by operational manager that threatened the program and did not report them to the funding agencies. So, nothing was done to address them and they continue to this day.

  • By 2003, staff had been diverted away from the surveillance effort. Consequently, a review by Monash University in 2012 found that fire ants continue to spread faster than Biosecurity Queensland can find them.
  • Because bait trail sites were destroyed in 2002, there is no evidence that the fire ant treatment program is effective. In 2003, there was already evidence of fire ants re-infesting and spreading from areas that had been treated. In 2003, and still now, Biosecurity Queensland does not report re-infestations that occur within treatment zones and does not report areas scheduled for treatment that do not get treated.
  • The program has no effective containment regime. From the beginning of the program, enterprises dealing in fire ant carriers like soil and mulch were allowed to manage their own risk of spreading fire ants. By 2003, about 2500 high-risk enterprises had enter into voluntary risk management plans with Biosecurity Inspectors. But the inspectors had no idea how many high-risk enterprises were operating in the fire ant infested area and they were concerned about fire ants spreading into eighty-five new housing developments in the fire ant area. Today, fire ant nests are exploding in new housing estates in south-east Queensland; putting the safety of residents at risk.
  • The fire ant program does not have, and has never had had a functioning information system, even though this was a milestone set by the Ministers’ Forum in 2001. In March 2017, the Queensland Audit Office found that Biosecurity Queensland does not capture adequate, reliable and consistent performance data. Consequently, Biosecurity Queensland is not able to substantiate any claims of success or progress.

The public, the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments can have no confidence in Biosecurity Queensland’s reports on the progress of National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program and they can have no confidence that the approximately $400m of public money has not been wasted.  

It is still dangerous for staff, frustrated with the program, to speak out and tell the public the truth.  After making my disclosure to the CMC, I remained in DPI for nearly another 18 months; fighting a losing battle against a campaign to retrench me.  I had loved my eighteen years in DPI and had no desire to leave. Fortunately, in May 2005, I was able to jump before I was pushed to take up a terrific position in the private sector on a significantly better salary. Not every whistle-blower is this lucky. With very mixed feelings, I resigned from DPI.

But I have maintained my concern about the impact that fire ants are now having on Australia’s unique wildlife, on our outdoor lifestyle and on our economy and I have maintained my interest in National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. I write these blogs, based on program reports and reviews that I have accessed under Queensland’s Right to Information procedures, to tell the public the truth about Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant fiasco.