For sixteen years, the national committee overseeing the National Fire Ant Eradication Program, utterly failed to ensure that Biosecurity Queensland used $400m of public money to the greatest effect against this terrible pest. Instead, it simply allowed the Queensland government, who puts in only 10% of the money to make 100% of the program’s decisions: unscientific decisions that have crippled the fire ant program, wasted $400m of public money, but benefited Queensland. And the national oversight committee colluded with Biosecurity Queensland to keep the truth about the fire ant program, the extent of the fire ant infestation and the use of public money from the public and the Agriculture Minister’s Forum. Fire ants now infest an area in south-east Queensland that is ten times bigger than when they were first found in 2001: twice the size of the Australian Capital Territory. Fire ants are still spreading out of control and re-infesting areas that have been heavily treated. In July 2017, the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum agreed to fund the fire ant program for ANOTHER ten years – with ANOTHER $400m of public money: this time with a new oversight committee. https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/plants/weeds-pest-animals-ants/invasive-ants/fire-ants/national-red-imported-eradication-program/10-year-eradication-program/steering-committee The new oversight committee needs to take 100% responsibility for ensuring that Biosecurity Queensland does not waste ANOTHER $400m of public money. But will it? For sixteen years, both Biosecurity Queensland and the previous national oversight committee lied to the Ministers’ Forum and the public about the true state of the fire ant program, the extent of the infestation and the misuse of public money. The new oversight committee needs to open up this 100% publicly funded program to close public scrutiny. But will it? The Minister for Agriculture and Water and Chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, David Littleproud, needs to ensure the new oversight committee is 100% responsible for the fire ant eradication program. Contact him at: David.Littleproud.MP@aph.gov.au 16th February 2018
Because fire ants are a national problem, capable of wreaking havoc on most of the country, the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication is funded by the Commonwealth and all State and Territory governments, in the national interest. 50% of the money comes from the Commonwealth and the rest from the States and Territories. Queensland puts in 10% of the funding and implements the fire ant program. A national fire ant oversight committee, made up of representatives of all the jurisdictions who pay for it, is responsible for ensuring that Biosecurity Queensland puts public money to the best use against this terrible pest.
The fire ant infestation is now ten times worse than it was when they were first found in south-east Queensland in 2001. It now covers an area twice the size of the Australian Capital Territory. Fire ants are still spreading, out of control, and re-infesting areas that have been heavily treated.
$400m of public money has been wasted on the fire ant eradication program over the past sixteen years because Biosecurity Queensland’s management is incompetent and because the oversight committee’s governance was incompetent. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 scathingly described Biosecurity Queensland as ‘not having the capacity to implement the changes required to meet the needs of the future and address current needs.’ Program auditor Deloitte, noting the oversight committee’s lack procedures and practices, questioned the ability of the committee to ensure the proper use of public money.
When I spoke to Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, in December 2016, then chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, I asked him ‘How come Queensland puts in 10% of program funding but makes 100% of program decisions? He said that was a good question. I believe the creation of this new oversight committee is part of his response to that question.
The new oversight committee needs to take 100% responsibility for the National Fire Ant Eradication Program. But will it?
I fear the new committee might be as irresponsible and as incompetent as its predecessor. The previous oversight committee, managed by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water, approved five significant decisions, most of which Biosecurity Queensland intends to continue, which crippled the program and wasted hundreds of millions of public dollars.
The first two relate to creating jobs in Queensland.
In 2001, US experts said we had an outside chance of eradicating fire ants if we urgently and immediately baited the whole infestation by air. But with Queensland’s unemployment rate >8%, the Queensland government used cost-share partners’ money to create jobs for four hundred unemployed people to search for and kill fire ants. The auditor said this slow, absentee riddled workforce, with managers out their depths, was the greatest drag on the program’s efficiency. Instead of an urgent and immediate response, the ground-force took two years to get the first rounds of bait down.
In 2002, a computer model showed the five-year eradication plan would take eleven years to succeed. The director introduced the controversial practice of injecting insecticide into all fire ant nests to speed up the process. The science review team of 2002 said this practice disturbs the nests and causes the ants to spread: doing more harm than good. Research from the USA shows that eradication attempts fail because of the improper use of insecticides. Nevertheless, this expensive, labour intensive practice continues to this day, again at a time of high unemployment, creating a lot of jobs for Queenslanders, but likely causing nests to split and fire ants spread.
By 2006, with fire ants continuing to spread and re-infest treated areas, and desperate to keep cost-share partners’ money coming into Queensland, Biosecurity Queensland clutched at untested remote sensing technology to, supposedly, find fire ant nests quickly and cheaply by air. Thermal imaging cameras mounted on a helicopter were supposed to identify warm fire ant nests. The 2009 science review team cautioned against it – saying it would likely identify all sorts of warm things, such as cow pats and rocks as nests, but miss actual nests. Which is exactly what happened. By the time it was decommissioned, it had wasted millions of dollars, had found 38 nests and the fire ant infestation had tripled in size: from 100,000ha to 300,000ha. And Biosecurity Queensland is planning on re-commissioning it.
In 2001, US experts recommended an aggressive containment program to stop people carelessly or accidentally, moving fire ants in loads of soil or mulch or pot-plants. Although it has been illegal to move a live fire ant since 2002, Biosecurity Queensland’s enforcement of that legislation has been almost non-existent. In 2002, the Queensland Minister allowed high risk industries (those that deal in fire ant friendly materials like soil, mulch or compost) to manage their own risk of spreading fire ants. A large team of biosecurity inspectors helped many community-minded, high risk enterprises to develop risk management plans to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants. But the inspectors had no idea how many high-risk enterprises were operating in the fire and zones and what others were doing – and still don’t.
The Queensland Biosecurity Act of 2014 created the General Biosecurity Obligation: an obligation on all members of the public to manage their biosecurity risk: which is fair enough. But Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its own Biosecurity Obligation by reducing its large team of biosecurity inspectors down to a mere handful. Biosecurity Queensland has almost totally dumped the responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants onto the public. The public has done a sterling job in reporting new infestations, but they cannot run the sort of aggressive containment program the US experts said was essential. If the Queensland government wants to create more jobs program, this would be one place to do it.
Finally, a milestone set for the program by the Ministers’ Forum, way back in 2001, was for the program to have a functioning information system and reliable data base to manage operations and to record progress. The program does not have, and has never had, either. Since 2002, the many reviews of the program have criticised its lack of any performance data. By early 2017, nothing had changed. The Queensland Audit Office, reviewing three Biosecurity Queensland programs, not fire ants, said Biosecurity Queensland cannot always demonstrate that it is achieving program goals because it does not capture reliable and consistent data, has no specific, measurable performance indicators, no method for evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of its program and its reports focus on inputs and activities, not on outcomes and progress towards objectives: exactly what the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review said in 2015 and exactly what the auditor said, specifically about the fire ant program, in 2013. But, for sixteen years, the oversight committee has accepted Biosecurity Queensland’s totally unsubstantiated claims of progress and eradicating populations of fire ants.
Neither Biosecurity Queensland nor the national oversight committee have told the public the truth about the fire ant program and the use of public money. Will the new oversight committee open up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny?
With a slow, trouble riddled ground force, the results of the first year of the program were pretty poor. So, the cover-up began. I was preparing the progress reports that went to the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum. I knew those reports over-stated the program’s success and did not report the serious problems threatening it. I made a complaint to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission who sent my complaint back to the Department to investigate. Naturally, the then Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries found no substance to my complaint and the misreporting has continued. And the oversight committee has colluded with the cover-up.
In 2002, the first science team that reviewed the program said they could not determine whether the attempt at eradication would be successful because of the program’s lack of data. But the oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum that it ‘was pleased to note that the review team believed that the results of the first year indicate that eradication is possible.’
In 2003, program auditors said they too could not evaluate the efficiency of the program because of ‘a scarcity of performance measures.’ But the oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum the auditor had said the program’s operations were effective and efficient.
In 2004, a second science review team reported a huge new infestation around Swanbank and fire ants surviving multiple treatments. The oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum that ‘the over-riding comments of the review were very positive … they made twenty-six recommendations…. that have been implemented where appropriate.’ These twenty-six recommendations were on top of the twenty-three recommendations the same team had made in 2002: all of which Biosecurity Queensland had rejected.
In 2006, the third science review team said ‘Fire ants are re-infesting properties that have been treated, sixty new detections have been found beyond the treatment area, fire ants are spreading faster than they are being found. Start again with aerial baiting and aggressive containment.’ The oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum ‘the program was making satisfactory progress and the committee remains positive about the chances of eradication.’ But they added, ‘it would be clear within the year if eradication can be achieved… with existing resources.’ The oversight committee supported Biosecurity Queensland’s excuse that their poor progress was the result of poor funding. The 2006 review team specifically rejected funding as an excuse for poor progress and specifically blamed Biosecurity Queensland’s poor management.
By 2008, a computer model showed that ‘with the rate of detection less than the rate of spread…eradication will not be possible.’ With no substantiating data what-so-ever, the oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum ‘The program has demonstrated that eradication of populations can be achieved with existing methods, the bulk of the original infestation has been eradicated and the program has delayed the spread of fire ants by ten to fifteen years.’
In 2009, the fourth science review team was alarmed at the extent of the infestation and said ‘Current surveillance methods are inadequate for defining the limits. Treatment methods are questionable. Fire ants cannot be eradicated using current techniques,’ and recommended the program revert to containment and suppression for 18-24 months. The oversight committee told the Ministers’ Forum, again, bereft of any data, that it was premature to cease the pursuit of eradication. The 2002 science review team had said that if fire ants were not virtually eradicated by 2004, the eradication attempt should be ‘terminated’ and the program revert to one of containment and management.
Nevertheless, in 2017, still with no data that a continuing eradication program was either technically feasible or cost-beneficial, the oversight committee advised the Ministers’ Forum, to commit another $400m of public money to continue the fire ant eradication program for another ten years.
For sixteen years, neither Biosecurity Queensland nor the national oversight committee has told the Ministers’ Forum, or the public, the truth about the state of the fire ant eradication program, the extent of the infestation or the use of public money.
I have tried to keep the public informed via these blogs on my website. My blogs are based on information I have gleaned from program reports and reviews that I have accessed under Right to Information processes. Those processes are extremely slow and I have been denied access to documents that previously were publicly available.
To make this 100% publicly funded program open to public scrutiny, the new oversight committee needs to give the public easy, timely, on-line access to all program reports and reviews and the minutes of all management and governance committee meetings. And Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce agreed. He wrote to me to say ‘I note your suggestion that the RIFA-SEQ Program Steering Committee open relevant program documents to public scrutiny. I am advised that the committee is exploring ways to increase public transparency and engagement, including options you have raised, but has not yet made specific decisions ahead of the appointment of an independent Chair.’
The committee and the Chair are now in place. Will they open up the fire ant program to public scrutiny, or will they just increase the current slow dribble of very watered-down public information?
The Minister for Agriculture and Water and Chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, David Littleproud, needs to ensure the new national oversight committee of the National Fire Ant Eradication Program takes 100% responsibility for how Biosecurity Queensland’s uses public money and opens up this 100% publicly funded program to close public scrutiny. Contact him at: David.Littleproud.MP@aph.gov.au