The Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum has agreed to extend the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in south-east Queensland by another ten years at the cost of another $400m: on top of the $400m Biosecurity Queensland has wasted over the past sixteen years with the result the infestation is now ten times worse than when fire ants were first detected around Brisbane in 2001. This time, the program will come under the scrutiny of a new oversight committee, but will it do any better than the last one? Program auditor Deloitte questioned the previous oversight committee’s ability to properly manage public money because it allowed the Queensland government to make 100% of program decisions while putting in only 10% of the funds, it never held Biosecurity Queensland accountable for meeting program targets and it accepted Biosecurity Queensland stories that it was eradicating fire ants; even as fire ants spread. But because the fire ant program has brought around $360m of extra money into the Queensland Treasury, the Queensland Agriculture Minister is telling the same stories to keep the money coming: that there is still a window of opportunity for eradicating fire ants, that he is 90% certain that Biosecurity Queensland can eradicate the fire ants and that Biosecurity Queensland has the best expertise to do the job. The new oversight committee’s challenge will be to see through Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant stories. The committee’s oversight and governance of the program can be improved, I believe, if the committee opens this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny: by posting all program reports and reviews on-line, freely and in a timely manner and by listening to first-hand information on the program from the public and field staff, unfiltered by program managers. 31st July 2017
On 26th July, the Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum agreed to extend the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in south-east Queensland by another ten years at a cost of another $400m. This is on top of the $400m Biosecurity Queensland has wasted over the past sixteen years with the result the infestation is now ten times worse than when fire ants were first detected around Brisbane in 2001. But this time, the program will come under the scrutiny of a new permanent, oversight committee. But, will this committee do any better at holding Biosecurity Queensland to account than previous oversight committees, run by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources? There is a good chance the new committee will fall for the same old stories that previous oversight committees have fallen for. But opening up the program to public scrutiny could improve the oversight and governance of the program.
The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is funded by the Commonwealth and all State and Territory governments. Queensland’s contribution is just 10% of that, but national oversight committees have allowed the Queensland government to make 100% of the decisions on how the program runs. Consequently, the fire ant infestation has been a cash-boon to Queensland Treasury, bringing in around $360m external money over sixteen years. But only as long as Biosecurity Queensland promises it can eradicate fire ants and the oversight committees accepted Biosecurity Queensland’s stories that it is.
The oversight committees have indeed swallowed Biosecurity Queensland stories and:
When auditors from Deloitte reviewed the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in 2013, they questioned the oversight committee’s ability to give due care in the use of public money because, they said:
The new oversight committee will have its work cut out for it. The Queensland government still sees the fire ant program as a source of external funding. In recent months, Queensland Treasury gave Biosecurity Queensland $900,000 to develop the next ten-year fire ant eradication plan to keep the money coming. On 26th July, Queensland Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne successfully touted that plan to the Ministers’ Forum. He outlined that plan in an interview he gave to ABC Rural radio on 27th July.
He said there was an opportunity ‘to exploit this window of opportunity to eradicate fire ants in the national interest’ and the best advice he has is that it is 90% certain to be effective. Unless Minister Byrne has scientific evidence not made accessible to the public under Right to Information processes in Queensland, there is no scientific evidence of a 90% chance of eradication. And in 2001, fire ant experts from the USA, said there was only a narrow window of opportunity to eradicate fire ants then. The infestation is now ten times worse.
Minister Byrne said he convinced the Ministers’ Forum to extend the eradication program by saying that the alternative was to do nothing: which would be a disaster. The alternative to an eradication program is not ‘doing nothing’. The alternative is the aggressive containment program that fire ant experts from the USA recommended in 2001: tight controls on the movement of fire ant carriers like soil, mulch, compost, turf and potted plants from infested areas to fire ant free areas. Because Biosecurity Queensland failed to do this, the uncontrolled movement of fire ant carriers is the main cause of the steady and unabated spread of fire ants into south-east Queensland.
In 2014, with the fire ant infestation well entrenched in south-east Queensland, the Ministers’ Forum commissioned a review to compare the cost-benefit of a continued eradication program with an aggressive containment program to reduce their spread in south-east Queensland and to stop them spreading into the rest of Australia. That review, well supported by Biosecurity Queensland who knows the Commonwealth and other States will not fund a containment program, did not conduct a comparison of the cost-benefit of an eradication program with an aggressive containment program. Currently, there is no scientific or economic evidence that eradication is the most prudent use of public money.
So, on ABC Rural radio, Minister Byrne said there would be a ’doubling of the current amount of treatment and surveillance’ in the new ten-year plan. He did not say if that would be anywhere near enough and he made no mention at all of any containment program to stop the movement of fire ant carriers into fire ant free areas.
Not only is Minister Byrne certain that Biosecurity Queensland has a 90% chance of eradicating fire ants, he says that the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is now home to ‘enormous capability and intellectual capacity and experience’ in dealing with fire ants. This is the same intellectual capacity that produced a science program the 2010 review called fragmented, ad hoc and largely fruitless. This is the same intellectual capacity that wasted time and money on aerial surveillance technology that mostly found cow pats and let the infestation triple in size. This is the same intellectual capacity the Capability Review in 2015 said was unable to address current or future biosecurity needs.
Responding to questions about a culture of secrecy in the fire ant program, Minister Byrne denied that a ‘culture of secrecy has locked the community out’ of the fire ant program. It is true the public have done their bit: 70% of new detections have been made by the public. But the public can’t remain vigilant if they don’t know where fire ants are. Biosecurity Queensland has not up-dated its Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones map in over a year and does not report new infestations, for example, in Brookfield and Bracken Ridge.
Minister Byrne told ABC Rural radio he had never witnessed any culture of secrecy in the fire ant program: then contributed to it. The new National (Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication) Program Steering Committee will have its work cut out for it because Queensland Government are past masters in obfuscation and cover-up of the fire ant fiasco to keep the money coming into Queensland.
Opening up this 100% publicly funded program to better public scrutiny can, I believe, improve the governance and oversight of the program. To this end, the new National Program Steering Committee could: