Media: Steve Austin ABC Brisbane. Interviews with Pam Swepson and Beth Woods

'Mornings' with Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane Friday 1st December 2017 Interviews with Pam Swepson: former fire ant program policy officer who became a whistle-blower over the mismanagement of the fire ant program and Beth Woods, Director-General, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries which runs the fire ant program.

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Steve Austin (SA) The National Fire Ant Eradication Program has yet again been criticised for its lack of effectiveness in eradicating the pest. The ABC Radio National program, Background Briefing, did a major investigation and spoke with whistle-blowers that have accused Biosecurity Queensland of mismanaging the eradication.  A number of current and former staff told the ABC Radio National program that Queensland is failing to control the ants and the funding is being wasted.

Now, the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is managed by Biosecurity Queensland.  Pam Swepson is a former fire ant program policy officer who became a whistle-blower over the mismanagement of the program. Her whistleblowing claims were rejected by the then Crime and Misconduct Commission. However, her concerns appear to have materialised.

Pam Swepson, when you left the Department, what was the problem you were warning about?

Pam Swepson (PS) I left the Department, Steve, (after) I reported to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) that, what was the Fire Ant Control Centre at that stage and became Biosecurity Queensland a couple of year later, that they were misreporting to Commonwealth and the other States who were paying for the program, by – I was writing/drafting the reports, which over-stated the success of the program and didn’t report serious problem affecting the program.

And I listed the serious problems that were affecting the program. The CMC found no substance to my complaint, so the misreporting has continued and the serious problems I raised at the time, continue. The problems I raised were the lack of staff being put into surveillance: downplaying of the surveillance effort which today means that fire ants are spreading faster than Biosecurity Queensland can find them. The other thing that they did was to wind back any containment program. At the start of the program, twenty good biosecurity inspectors worked with industries who dealt with high risk materials to help them manage their risk of spreading fire ants. They wound that back to almost nothing. And the other thing I reported was that the program destroyed the trials of the baits. So, to this day, we have no evidence that the baiting program actually works. So, they are the three elements of the fire ant program: surveillance, containment and treatment that are critical for its success, and all of them were compromised.

SA   So basically, the whole program since 2001, when fire ants were first identified in Queensland, the whole program has been mismanaged from beginning to end?

PS   Exactly.

SA   Last year when I spoke with you, we also spoke with the Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Now, he’s a bit distracted with a bi-election at the moment, but they did announce at an Agriculture Ministers’ Forum that there would be a special, independent committee established to oversee the attempted extermination. I think you had some input into that. Does it work? Are they doing their job properly, Pam Swepson?

PS   I don’t know. I had a letter from the Acting Director General of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries just recently to say that that committee was still being formed. But that committee has the potential of doing a good job. But it will depend on the quality of the chair and the quality of representatives on that committee and where they are located: whether they can do a decent job.  

Barnaby Joyce was gracious enough to give me an interview with him, and I asked him ‘How come Queensland is putting in 10% of the money and making 100% of the decisions?’  And he thought that was a very good question and he said he would find out. And I think as a consequence of me asking that, he’s asked for the creation of this permanent oversight committee. And it will depend on how critically they do their job.

The other thing that I think has come from that interview with Minister Joyce was, that for the first time ever, Biosecurity Queensland, or the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, has been advertising for a qualified Director of the fire ant program. This is the first time in sixteen years that there has been proper recruitment for the best person for the job.

SA   This is someone from outside of (the department)?

PS   Yes. Every other Director of the program has just been an internal: Your turn, your turn, your turn –  I suggest.

SA   My guest is Pam Swepson. She’s a whistle-blower whose concerns were rejected by the then Crime and Misconduct Commission. But, as fate would have it, all her complaints and concerns appear to be substantiated.  This week on ABC Radio National, the investigative documentary program Background Briefing, produced a major report on the $400m fire ant extermination effort and how it was failing. In that program, Pam Swepson, Geoff Kent, the head of the eradication program conceded that they had to improve their quality control systems. They also had in the program evidence that aerial sensing technology is not where it needs to be to be useful. Is it correct you were warning about this some years back?

PS   Yes, I was.

SA   Right. So, do you feel vindicated at all by this Radio National program which found evidence to all the complaints that you made, wouldn’t you say.

PS   Yes it did, but I think it hasn’t gone far enough. It called itself a whistle-blower program and certainly the journalist has interviewed people who have shown him where its failing:  nests that have been left untreated, the aerial surveillance that was finding cow manure rather than fire ant nests. Certainly, it has shone some light on things that Biosecurity Queensland has not been reporting.

From my perspective, and I’ve been critical of the program for a long time as you know Steve, it hasn’t gone far enough. And my argument has been to say that if Biosecurity Queensland, as it is, with the management it has, and if it continues to do what it is currently doing, without having a really good look at what the program actually needs to be, then the next $400m is going to be wasted the same way as the previous $400m.

SA   So unless, the Federal government and the Department actually get properly on top of this, they will be wasting the $400m they’re giving the Queensland government to try and eradicate fire ants.

PS   The oversight committee will be made up from the Commonwealth and all of the States that put in the money. So, 50% from the Commonwealth, and the rest from the other States.

SA   Now I was surprised to hear in the Background Briefing program that even though the fire ant program was established in 2001, what’s that, 16 years on,…

PS   Correct

SA ….that fire ants have been spreading the entire time…

PS   That’s right

SA   That the total area of infestation in south-east Queensland has now increased by over 30%.

PS   It’s ten times worse than it was at the beginning.

SA TEN times worse that what it was in the beginning and still, with all of their remote sensing, all of their helicopters, all of these millions and millions of dollars of public money, the majority of fire ant nests detected are actually coming from members of the public!

PS   Exactly. Exactly, because, as I said to you, they wound back any surveillance.  I mean the Americans at the beginning said don’t put effort into surveillance because they are too hard to find. They said to prophylactically bait the whole area which is the only way for the ants to find the bait.  So, the surveillance efforts are a waste of time unless you are going to be doing a containment regime. That’s a different process. So, the remote sensing has been a total waste of time: as was the ground force that was created in 2001. That was just a jobs creation program not a fire ant program. It wasted a huge amount of money and it took two years to get the first rounds of bait down.  So, we lost the plot for the fire ant program in 2001/2002.

SA   Do Federal authorities understand how concerning this is?  I note that some experts in this area, who were quoted in the program, warn that if they don’t eradicate them here in south-east Queensland that their modelling shows that 99% of Australia is utterly susceptible and poses a huge threat to the Australian way of life.

PS   I don’t know the modelling says 99% but certainly a huge amount.

SA The Invasive Species Council Chief Executive Andrew Cox, said the spread of fire ants poses quote ‘a huge threat’ to the Australian way of life. Their modelling shows that most of Australia is susceptible.

PS   It is.

SA When I spoke with you last time you said the reason why the State government in Queensland was saying they were going to eradicate them, was because, if they say that, the Feds give them more money. But they know they can’t achieve it. In other words, they were being fraudulent. Essentially, the basis of that is:  they were being fraudulent. It’s a means of levering money out of the Federal government and all that time the spread of fire ants has increased ten-fold.

PS   That’s correct. I believe it’s been taking money under false pretences and what I was going to say was there has been a continuous spread, at a constant rate, irrespective of anything Biosecurity Queensland has done. I mean Geoff Kent’s claim that they have contained it and it would be up in Mackay or down to the border, or wherever else he said, is not based on any factual evidence. But the facts are, the facts are:  fire ants continue to spread at a steady rate, irrespective of anything that’s been done by the government.

SA   Is the Federal government monitoring what Queensland ‘s doing properly?

PS   No. Certainly not up until now. I’ve got a blog on my website saying the Commonwealth oversight has been pretty poor. I should have said ‘appalling’. And I documented there how the oversight (committee)…..The auditor, Deloitte commented on the quality of the oversight committee and they said they let Biosecurity Queensland get away with rubbish reports, people don’t bother turning up to the meetings, there’s no consistency on representatives of the oversight committee. So, Deloitte was very critical of the oversight committee that had been set up by the Commonwealth government to date.

SA   Pam Swepson, I’ll leave it there. Thanks very much for your time.

PS   Thank you very much Steve.

SA   That’s two biosecurity fails on behalf of Federal and State governments: white spot in prawns and fire ants in south-east Queensland.  More to come on this.

After the 9 o’clock news, I’ll be speaking with the Electoral Commission’s Dermot Tiernan on where the count’s at and why its dragging on. We’ve also been contacted by the Director-General of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. That’s funny. They wouldn’t talk about anything else in the lead up to the State election campaign but they will now. So, I’m looking forward to that. And also this morning, as I go to air, a man is current driving his car to Brisbane on fish and chip oil…………….

In just a moment, the Director General of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Beth Woods, on that fire ant program. The $400m program that Radio National this week where we heard that the program was being undermined and failing.

It’s 26 minutes to 10. As you heard on ABC news earlier this morning, whistle-blowers have accused Biosecurity Queensland of mismanaging the biggest pest eradication effort in Australia’s history.

The State government runs the $400m Red Imported Fire Ant program across the south-east. But a number of current and former staff have told the ABC the program is failing to control the ants and the funding is being wasted.

Now, we’ve been contacted by Beth Woods, the Director General of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries wanting to respond to this report. Beth Woods, good morning to you.

Beth Woods (BW)  Morning Steve

SA Why is it failing to control the ants?

BW   I actually don’t think we can make that conclusion yet. I certainly don’t pretend that controlling and eradicating fire ants is going to be easy. But we have actually only been fully funded for eradication and only begun that process in July this year. And, in fact, it’s a ten- year process which will run out to 2027. So, to call it a fail at this point is, I think, premature.

SA   We identified fire ants fifteen years ago.

BW   Yes, I agree. That’s absolutely the case and while I wasn’t in the Department in 2001, I accept that there were and were likely to be deficiencies in the program over the years.

SA What years were there deficiencies in the program prior to your arrival?

BW   My key point would be to say that it’s not actually been funded for eradication:  despite the fact that that’s obviously been the end target.  We need to just be careful with some of these conclusions that you’ve talk about earlier. Because I have in front of me the Executive Summary of the Deloitte’s review, for example, that was quoted earlier, and if I can just read one paragraph about it. It says ‘in relation to the efficiency of the program, based on the areas examined, the Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is operating efficiently, given the complexity of the environment. We also commend the culture within the program of continuously seeking further efficiencies, but assessment identified areas where further efficiencies could be gained.’ So, I think it was implied earlier that that review, which looked at the program from 2009 to 2013, said it was an abject failure. It actually didn’t. It pointed out areas for improvement and I expect those always to be there. The culture that’d I’d be looking for in the program would be to always be looking for opportunities to improve.

SA   I don’t have the Deloitte report in front of me, so I am assuming you’re being full and open in your assessment. But I understand the Deloitte report is critical of the oversight of the program.

BW   I think it does make some really important conclusions about oversight and internal controls. But I think that’s one of the areas in the major program that has been funded from July this year. There has been a significant improvement. And the oversight committee is already in place. It has senior biosecurity experts from every jurisdiction in Australia. It’s chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, who is a very well-known eminent Australian who’s worked across the natural resource and agriculture industries throughout her career.

SA   I know Wendy and yes, she is.

BW   And she’s most recently chaired the inter-governmental agreement on biosecurity review. So, she is very much in the space of modern, biosecurity programs and their management. And we’re really pleased to have her on board, chairing….

SA   She hasn’t been there that long though, has she?

BW Well, as I said, the program only started in July, so…

SA  This is the $400m Federally funded eradication program

BW   No. It’s not Federally funded, Steve, its funded jointly by every jurisdiction in Australia. 50% of the funding, as Pam Swepson correctly said, comes from the Commonwealth and the remainder comes from…..

SA   The other States.  Let me change my words: the majority single share is funded by the federal government.

BW Yeah. That’s correct.

SA   And there’s an oversight committee monitoring the effectiveness of that funding.

BW   Yep.

SA   In the Radio National program, one person, a former officer of the Department said the agency responsible under your Department’s control continues to spread fire ant bait on wet ground rendering it useless. Why are we doing that?

BW   That is an on-going problem. If you have a look outside today, you’ll see that we’ve got a showery day. So, you have planned activities, you find that it’s rained. You don’t necessarily even know that its rained in a particular locality if you’re up in a helicopter spreading bait.

SA   There has been persistent criticism of that helicopter spread, hasn’t there?

BW So what we’re actually aiming to do though Steve, going forward, is to find a quality control way of being able to identify when we’ve got wet ground and making sure that we don’t get bait onto wet ground. Again, absolutely correct to say that the efficiency and effectiveness of bait is greatly reduced if it goes onto wet ground.

SA   After fifteen years, that would be nice. If we’re only learning that lesson now.

BW    Well, can I make two comments about that?  One is that we are, as I said, launching into a much bigger program. So, we’ll have a great deal more bait being spread. But bait formulations have improved over the last fifteen years and are not exactly the same as they were in 2001. Nevertheless, we’ve got to balance all the issues in relation to baits. We need a bait that will be picked up by fire ants and taken back to the nest because it’s the queen in the nest that we’re targeting. But at the same time, we need to have zero impacts on people, on the animals that they are owning on their property and obviously, also on the environment and native animals. So, all those things need to be balanced. But you’re absolutely correct, we are looking for greater efficiency and effectiveness.

SA   That would be good.  Prior to your arrival though, and I admit that it’s prior to your arrival Beth, so it’s not something you can be held responsible for, but the Department can, that since the Department’s been handing this, its multiplied ten-fold.

BW   You’re correct again. It has increased in size.  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: that’s the skills of mapping, populations of pests or diseases and how they spread, 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.  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.

SA   Well, given how dangerous these things are, and given the international warnings about these things, why was the State government only just giving you a little bit of funding and not the full funding needed? What have they been doing for fifteen years?

BW   In fact, the State government has been paying well above its share.  We discussed how the funding is organised. The State government in Queensland, on average, has been paying well above its share each year to try to maintain the maximum effort. Where we’ve actually had difficulty is in convincing the rest of Australia that this was feasible and worth doing in a consistent way.  Just to put it in context Steve, this is a mammoth program by biosecurity standards, and the 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, to make the decision about putting a whole lot of extra dollars into a problem in Queensland.  I think that’s the reality of the situation. What I’m proud of is that we’ve got absolutely consistent support from the Commonwealth and across Australia to fund this going forward.

SA  That’s nice, but you’ve repeated that three times. I understand there are two North American fire ant nests at the Port of Brisbane now.  Is that right?

BW  That’s correct. I think the ones that are the most interesting to look at are actually the infestation we had a Yarwun and the one that we had a Brisbane Airport, because, one of the comments, again made earlier in your show, is that we no evidence of the effectiveness of eradication. That’s not actually true. We do have evidence and we have been able to officially declare the infestation at Gladstone eradicated. We are very close to being able to do that with a small infestation that occurred at Brisbane airport.

SA   So, they’re in the Port of Brisbane and they’re in Logan now as well, I understand.

BW   Well the Port of Brisbane and Logan are actually part of the original south-east Queensland infestation.

SA   Weren’t they cleaned out of there? I thought the Department said they were cleaned out of there.

BW   No. They’ve never been cleaned out of Logan. That’s part of the broader infestation which is called the original south east Queensland infestation from 2001. But where we’ve been able to isolate local infestations in areas that weren’t effected at the beginning, we have been able to show that they can be eradicated. What would be genuinely ground-breaking would be being able to demonstrate eradication on the scale of our current south east Queensland infestation. It’s a big challenge.

SA   It’s prior to your arrival, but can you confirm for me that the initial three hundred fire ant eradication staff were taken from the Sarina Russo Office Training Academy company? Can you confirm that for me?

BW   I don’t know whether it was specifically from that agency. 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.

SA   In other words, it was treated as a jobs program?

BW   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.

SA   Of my goodness!  How long have you been there Beth?

BW   I’ve been back in this Department since 2012.

SA   I really appreciate you coming on this morning. Just one other final question. There are a number of biosecurity problems that we have at the moment. The white ant one in which the federal government were tardy:  which they’ve now acknowledged – or the agriculture department has acknowledged – they weren’t informing your department properly. But myrtle rust, Asian honey bee, emerald furrow bee, to name but a few. And I think the weed program: the fire weed infestation. Are you happy that your Department is on top of all these major biosecurity threats?

BW   Steve, I think we can expect that biosecurity will be an ongoing challenge. We have more Australians travelling overseas than we’ve ever had before. We have an expanding number of international tourists coming to Australia. We have increasing levels of trade, with product going both out of Australia to other countries and coming into Australia. It’s inevitable that we will find unwelcome passengers in terms of pests and diseases in that process. And some of those will be able to be contained. You talked about white ants, but I think you meant white spot.

SA   Sorry, my apologies. Yep, Yep. In prawns.

BW   We are currently working to try to get to the point where we can’t find any evidence of white spot having been permanently established in south east Queensland. That’s a two-year exercise.

But if you look at something like myrtle rust which actually travels in the air, in the atmosphere. The chances of being able to contain that in any particular location forever, are pretty slim. Because there is no way that you can control fungal spores that are moving in the air currents that occur in the upper atmosphere. So, it’s a variety of pests and diseases. 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. Although we have had some difficulties in relation to the white spot in prawns, this is a really, in my mind, a really terrific area where we see enormous intergovernmental cooperation. And that may not be widely known. But, last Christmas, when we had lots of people out in ponds, dealing with that white spot outbreak. We had something in the order of 65 expert staff from around Australia and New Zealand who went on roster and came to Queensland to help out with that program. So, we actually get good cooperation across Australia. And we recognise that’s what we’ve got to do given the size of the problem.

SA Thanks for your time.

BW Thank you.

SA   Beth Woods, Director General of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.