Writings: Director-General Qld Dept Agriculture says Commonwealth money NOT used to eradicate fire ants. Was used for Qld jobs program.

The Director-General of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Beth Woods, told Steve Austin on ABC Brisbane on Friday 1st December that Biosecurity Queensland has NOT been using the $400m of public funding from the Commonwealth and other States for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program over the past sixteen years to eradicate fire ants: only to suppress them. And that Biosecurity Queensland HAD used cost-share partner money to fund a jobs program for some of Queensland’s unemployed. For sixteen years, the Commonwealth and other States have agreed to fund an eradication program, nothing less. Because the Queensland Government would have had to fund a suppression or containment program on its own, Biosecurity Queensland has consistently reported that it was on-track to eradicate fire ants and has claimed some local eradication successes: to keep the money coming from the Commonwealth and other States. When fire ants were first detected in 2001, fire ant experts advised quickly, cheaply and effectively baiting the whole infestation by air. Even though the Queensland government puts in 10% of program funds, Biosecurity Queensland has been making 100% of program decisions. Biosecurity Queensland rejected sound scientific advice and the Director-General confirmed that program funds were used to create a jobs program to soak up some of Queensland’s long-term unemployed folk. The 400-strong ground force, trying to find and kill fire ants, was slow, expensive, inefficient and ultimately ineffective. The jobs program wasted a lot of public money, the fire ant infestation is now ten times worse and spreading. The Director-General is continuing Biosecurity Queensland’s well established habit of blaming poor performance on funding problems. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 blamed Biosecurity Queensland’s poor performance on poor management. In July this year, the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments agreed to fund the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program for another ten years with another $400m of public money: this time with a new permanent oversight committee to steer and monitor the program. The oversight committee will have its work cut out for it with a Director-General who has been overseeing a fire ant suppression program, not a fire ant eradication program and who continues to blame the program's poor progress on inadequate funding instead of incompetent management. 6th December 2017



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The Director-General of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Beth Woods, told Steve Austin on ABC Brisbane’s  ‘Mornings’ program on Friday 1st December that, for the past sixteen years, Biosecurity Queensland has NOT been using the $400m of public money contributed by the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments to eradicate fire ants: only to suppress them.  

 She made the point three times, summing up by saying, ‘We simply didn’t have enough funding to be able to embark on full eradication and that’s why the funding we got in July was so important. For the first time, we’ve gone from just enough funding to suppress it but not enough to actually eradicate it.’

This might come as a surprise to the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments who, for the past sixteen years, have agreed to contribute significant funds to an eradication program; not a suppression program.  Because Queensland would have had to fund a suppression or containment program on its own, the Queensland government has consistently reported that it was on-track to eradicate fire ants and has claimed some local eradication successes to keep funding coming from the Commonwealth and other States.

Biosecurity Queensland has a well-established habit of blaming poor performance on inadequate funding and the Director-General is repeating the same old excuse. In 2006, the Director of the fire ant program tried to excuse the program’s poor performance on a ‘shrinking budget’. The independent scientific review of 2006 didn’t buy the argument. They said it was natural that funding per hectare is reduced as the area of infestation increases. They squarely blamed poor performance on poor management.  The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 didn’t buy that argument either. The review acknowledged that funding uncertainly was problematic, but shafted the blame back to Biosecurity Queensland; saying it lacks the ability to provide funding bodies with business cases, based on a sound investment framework and performance management data for funding biosecurity activities which would produce the highest rate of return in managing risks to Queensland’s economy and environment and the Queensland community. The Director-General is continuing Biosecurity Queensland’s well-established habit of blaming poor performance on poor funding instead of incompetent management.

$400m over sixteen years is a substantial amount of money, and likely to have been enough to contain the spread of fire ants, if Biosecurity Queensland was competently run. The Director-General believes that it is. In response to Steve Austin’s question about how Biosecurity Queensland responds to the many biosecurity challenges it faces, she said, ‘We prioritise, to try to put the maximum resource into the things that are going to have the most impact on people and the environment. And we swing the resources that we’ve got available to us into that.’  This is not what the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 found. They said Biosecurity Queensland lacks the ability to plan strategically, lacks the ability to priorities activities on the basis of risk analysis, pays excessive attention to the on-going management of pests and diseases rather than invest in prevention and local surveillance for early detection and lacks a framework for prioritizing funding. In fact, ‘the panel formed the view that Biosecurity Queensland does not have the capacity to implement the changes required to meet the needs of the future and address current needs.’ Little wonder  the fire ant infestation is now ten times worse than it was in 2001.

 The Director-General also denied that Biosecurity Queensland cannot substantiate its claims that, without its intervention, fire ants would now be infesting all of the east coast of Australia between Mackay and Wollongong and the fire ant infestation in Yarwun, near Gladstone, has been eradicated. She said, ‘Pam made the point that we don’t have any evidence that it would have been at Mackay or somewhere off to the south, but we can use the epidemiological skills that we’ve got…to estimate where it would have been in the absence of what really has been the major impact over most of that time which was suppression and slowing down of the advance.’  The fact is, Biosecurity Queensland cannot use epidemiological skills to assess the impact of the program because, as the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland does not collect high quality, timely performance information to analyse and evaluate its performance. And without any reliable performance information, the Report of the Independent Review Panel 2016 said that ‘the current SEQ Program’s approach to eradicating RIFA cannot be modelled.’ The fact remains that red imported fire ants have spread at a constant rate since it was detected in 2001. The infestation is now ten times bigger and extends from Moreton Bay in the east, through Brisbane, Gold Coast, Logan and Ipswich city councils and into the Scenic Rim, Moreton Bay, Somerset and Lockyer Valley regional areas – irrespective of anything Biosecurity Queensland has done.

Biosecurity Queensland cannot substantiate its claims it has eradicated fire ants from Yarwun near Gladstone either, even though, as the Director-General said, the Department has officially declared that infestation eradicated. In 2004, the second independent scientific review of the program required Biosecurity Queensland to develop the protocol it would use to justify any claims that it had eradicated fire ants: a protocol that would detail the methods and frequency of its post-treatment surveillance program. Biosecurity Queensland still does not have one. The independent scientific review of 2016 noted that claims that fire ants have been eradicated from some local areas are based only on a rule-of-thumb measure that no fire ants have been found two years after treatment has been completed. Biosecurity Queensland is yet to publish any comprehensive and validated data on the methods and frequency of its post-treatment surveillance program to justify any claims that it has eradicated fire ants from anywhere.

The Director-General did, however, confirm on ABC radio, that cost share partners’ money for a fire ant eradication program had been used to fund a jobs program for some of Queensland’s long term unemployed. In response to Steve Austin’s question about the source of some of the field staff initially recruited onto the fire ant program she said, ‘I do know that there was a component of the workforce, in the early days of the program, that was finding work for those that were difficult to place, type of program.’  When Steve Austin asked her ‘In other words it was treated as a jobs program?’ she replied ‘It was certainly part of an initiative of that nature at a time when unemployment levels were high and it was difficult for people to get jobs.’ 

The facts are, in 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation was as bad as they had ever seen. They said the only chance of containing the infestation was to urgently and repeatedly blanketing the entire infestation with bait, and the cheapest, quickest, most effective and efficient method was by air. The Red Imported Fire Ant Consultative Committee supported that recommendation; saying there were precedents for aerial baiting and it was likely to be supported by cost share partners.  But the Queensland Government, contributing just 10% of the program budget but making 100% of program decisions, rejected that advice.

In 2001, unemployment levels in Queensland were over 8%. A new Labor government had just won an election on the promise of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ So, instead of mounting a quick, cheap and efficient aerial baiting program, the Queensland government used cost share partners’ funds to mount a slow, expensive, inefficient and ineffective ground force of 400 field assistants to look for and kill fire ants. A lot of well qualified and skilled people who had recently been retrenched joined the program but a significant component of the ground force was made up of people who were virtually unemployable.  They were told they would lose their Centrelink benefits if they did not accept a position on the fire ant program. Auditor Deloitte said the workforce was very difficult and costly to manage and was the main drain on program’s efficiency.  Consequently, in a program where speed was of the essence, the ground force took two years to get the first rounds of bait down, undoubtedly, with gaps in that cover.

Consequently, as the Director-General acknowledged, Queensland has had trouble convincing the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments to continue to pay for the program. She said ‘Where we’ve actually had difficulty convincing the rest of Australia that this was feasible and worth doing in a consistent way…. expenditure that a small State like Tasmania is putting into fire ants represents a very significant part of their annual expenditure on biosecurity. So, it’s not a small decision at their level…. what I’m proud of is that we’ve got absolutely consistent support from the Commonwealth and across Australia to fund this going forward.’

It is true the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments, that pay for 90% of the program, have been concerned about the progress of National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program for some time. By 2012, it was looking like eradication might no longer be feasible and the other jurisdictions agreed to start work on a contingency plan. By April 2013, the cost share partners could not come to a consensus to continue to fund the program. Western Australia agreed to fund it for one more year. By August 2014, the cost share partners again could not come to a consensus to keep funding an eradication program. The Victorian government recommended transitioning to a long-term containment or management program. Most of the jurisdictions agreed to fund the program for 2014-15, but Western Australia did not.  This is why, as the Director-General told ABC radio Brisbane, ‘The State government in Queensland has on average been paying well above its share each year to try to maintain the maximum effort,’  because Queensland has had to make up the short-fall from jurisdictions pulling out of the cost-share arrangements.

In July this year, the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments agreed to fund the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program for another 10 years with another $400m of public money.  But this time, with a new permanent oversight committee, made up of an independent chair and senior biosecurity representatives from all jurisdictions that fund the program, to steer and monitor its progress. Hopefully, Queensland, that puts in 10% of the funding will no longer be making 100% of program decisions for the benefit of Queensland.

The Director-General told Steve Austin that she was proud of this outcome: of the ‘absolutely consistent support from the Commonwealth and across Australia to fund this going forward,’ as if it was something Biosecurity Queensland had achieved. It is more likely the new governance arrangement was decided by the cost-share partners and is now being imposed on Biosecurity Queensland. The Tasmanian Minister for Primary Industries and Water wrote to me to say ‘Whilst noting your concerns (about the recently announced and extended and increased funding of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program), I can advise that one of the reasons the Tasmanian Government has chosen to share the costs of this response is the governance structure of the new oversight committee.’

The new permanent oversight committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program will have its work cut out for it. For the past sixteen years, Biosecurity Queensland has spent approximately $400m of public money, the fire ant infestation is now ten times worse and fire ants continue to spread. The Director-General of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has confirmed the Queensland government used cost-share funding for a Queensland jobs program. The Director-General has been overseeing a fire ant suppression program, not a fire ant eradication program, and the Director-General repeats Biosecurity Queensland’s well established, but unjustifiable excuse that its poor performance is the result of inadequate funding when its incompetent management is to blame.