Biosecurity Queensland is not telling the public the truth about the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. It says it is eradicating fire ants when the truth is, fire ants are virtually out-of-control. The infestation in south-east Queensland is now ten times worse than when they were first discovered in 2001. The truth is, numerous reviews have criticised Biosecurity Queensland’s management of the program. The truth is, Biosecurity Queensland has no data to prove it is eradicating fire ants: or even containing them. The truth is, Biosecurity Queensland has wasted $400m of public money while the fire ant infestation just keeps getting worse. The Red Imported Fire Ant National Biosecurity Management Group, the committee responsible for scrutinising Biosecurity Queensland’s use of $400m of public money, tells the public and the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum that Biosecurity Queensland can eradicate fire ants. The truth is, the program auditor doubts the committee’s ability to ensure that Biosecurity Queensland does not waste public money because it simply accepts Biosecurity Queensland’s unsubstantiated reports of progress: reports the auditor says are no more than ‘narratives.’ Neither Biosecurity Queensland nor the national oversight committee are telling the public the truth about the fire ant program. It is time to open up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny. That means publishing all program reports and reviews and the minutes of all management and governance meetings, online, in a timely, and easy to access manner. The Queensland Right to Information Act (2009) says the release of such public information should be done ‘administratively, as a matter of course’ and that applying for government information under the Act should only be as a LAST RESORT. The Right to Information process is currently the ONLY avenue for accessing fire ant program documents and Biosecurity Queensland can use this very slow, very expensive process to avoid public scrutiny of the fire ant program. 7th March 2018
Numerous independent reviews have criticised Biosecurity Queensland’s management of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review doubted Biosecurity Queensland’s ability to manage current or future biosecurity threats. They said Biosecurity Queensland’s leadership team could not plan strategically, lacked the ability to prioritise activities based on risk analysis and as a consequence, wasted resources. The 2010 independent scientific review of the program said fire ants could not be eradicated with Biosecurity Queensland’s current methods. Numerous reviews, most recently by the Queensland Audit Office in 2017, have said that because Biosecurity Queensland does not capture reliable performance data and has no specific performance indicators it cannot evaluate the effectiveness of any of its program: meaning it can’t substantiate any claims of success.
Numerous independent reports have made many recommendations for improving the fire ant program: most of which Biosecurity Queensland ignored.
In 2003, I made a public interest disclosure to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) that the then Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, now home to Biosecurity Queensland, was not telling the public or the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments, the truth about the fire ant program. I was preparing those reports at that time and I knew they over-stated the success of the program and did not report the many serious problems threatening it. The CMC returned my complaint to the Department to investigate, and, not surprisingly, the Department found no substance to my complaint. The misreporting and cover-up continued unabated.
The program auditor doubted the ability of the national oversight committee to properly scrutinise Biosecurity Queensland’s use of $400m of public money. Because fire ants pose a threat to most of Australia, the Commonwealth and all State and Territory governments fund a national fire ant eradication program: 50% of the money comes from the Commonwealth government and the rest comes from the States and Territories. The Commonwealth government, through the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, is responsible for scrutinising how Biosecurity Queensland uses public money in the fire ant program. The Commonwealth Department established the Red Imported Fire Ant National Biosecurity Management Group, (NBMG) made up of the heads of the Departments in each jurisdiction responsible for biosecurity, to ensure the proper use of public money. The NBMG is advised by a committee of technical experts, the Tramp Ant Consultative Committee (TACC). (Fire ants are one of a number of ‘tramp ants’ infesting Australia).
The program auditor has questioned the ability of the oversight committee to scrutinise the use of public money and provide good governance of the program because it has never given Biosecurity Queensland any long-term plan for the program that included performance indicators and mechanisms of evaluating the return on investment of program initiatives. The oversight committee simply accepts Biosecurity Queensland’s unsubstantiated reports of progress. The auditor said that ‘without complete, clear and accurate information to support decision making, the governance committee may be unable to provide appropriate oversight and guidance to the Program as required, leading to an increased risk of inappropriate decisions being made.’
The oversight committee has consistently misreported the many independent reviews of the program to the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum. When independent reviews said they couldn’t tell if the eradication attempt was working, the committee reported that it was. When the auditor said they couldn’t tell if the program was effective, the committee reported that it was. When reviewers made numerous recommendations for improving the program, the oversight committee reported those recommendations had been implemented ‘where appropriate’: knowing that Biosecurity Queensland and rejected most, if not all of them.
Open the fire ant program up to public scrutiny
Neither Biosecurity Queensland nor the national oversight committee are telling the public or the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, the truth about the state of the fire ant program, the state of the infestation or the use of $400m of public money. It is time to open up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny.
This means making all program reports, independent reviews and the agenda and minutes of all program management meetings and all oversight committee meetings available to the public, on-line in a timely and easy to access manner.
When he was Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, Barnaby Joyce agreed. When I spoke to him in March 2017, I explained how the national oversight committee, managed by his Department, was not scrutinising how Biosecurity Queensland was using public money. I said the Ministers’ Forum would be throwing more good public money after bad unless the oversight committee opened the program up to public scrutiny. And he agreed. In September 2017, 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 do increase public transparency and engagement, including options you have raised…..’
I have tried to tell the public the truth about the performance of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, the true state of the fire ant infestation and the use of public money via these blogs on my website. I substantiate my blogs with information from program reports and reviews I have accessed via Queensland’s Right to Information process. But I should not have had to do so.
The preamble to the Queensland Right to Information Act 2009 says the release government information should be done, administratively, as a matter of course, unless there is a good reason not to, with application for information under the Act being necessary only as a last resort. The preamble to the Act says that community participation in the democratic process to enhance the accountability of the Queensland government is a necessary part of a free and democratic society. The preamble says Parliament’s intention is to provide a right of access to information in the government’s possession or under the government’s control unless, on balance, it is contrary to the public interest, to keep the community informed of government operations.
But when it comes to Biosecurity Queensland’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, processes under the RTI Act are the ONLY avenue for accessing information about a program. And the RTI process is slow, expensive and can allow Biosecurity Queensland to deny access to program documents.
The RTI process is extremely slow. While a valid RTI application must be finalised within 25 business days, that timeframe does not factor in the time an officer inevitably needs to consult with third parties who might be affected by the release of the documents. Inevitably RTI Services must negotiate an extension on that time frame with the applicant, mostly because they are under-resourced. The heavy workload in the section is the most frequent reason for an extension, or because the RTI officer is going on leave, or for no reason at all. Consequently, the time-frames for the five RTI applications I have made between 2014 and 2017 have ranged from three to nine months. If I had refused to negotiate an extension on the timeframe of any of those applications, that application would then have been deemed invalid.
The RTI process is potentially very expensive. While the scope of the five RTI applications I made between 2014 and 2017 reduced over-time, the charges did not. The charge for my June 2014 application was $1032, for my November 2014 application was $1032, for my 2015 application was $986, for my 2016 application was $799.20 and for my 2017 application was $998.30.
Fortunately, I have not had to pay the full rate for my application. But this is not the case of everyone.
A minority of third parties can block access to requested documents Officers from the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, the agency responsible of managing the oversight of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, have raised the most objections to the release of the documents I have requested. They have objected on the grounds that disclosures could prejudice intergovernmental relations, could cause damage to relations between the Commonwealth and the States and could divulge information on matters communicated in confidence between the States and the Commonwealth. None of these objections are legitimate and the RTI officer rejected them all.
Biosecurity Queensland can conceal breaches of program governance by denying access to relevant documents. In response to the two RTI applications I made in 2014 and the one I made in 2015, I received, without any objections, copies of the agenda and minutes, relevant to the fire ant program, from all Tramp Ant Consultative Committee meetings and all Red Imported Fire Ant National Biosecurity Management Group meetings during those years.
When I applied for access to the same documents for the financial year 2015-16 I received none. Biosecurity Queensland informed the RTI officer, that those groups did meet during that time-frame, but they never discussed the fire ant program.
If this was the case, it would be a severe breach of the governance of the program. Biosecurity Queensland is required to report to TACC on a quarterly basis. I asked the RTI officer to confirm that Biosecurity Queensland had not provided the TACC with quarterly reports during 2015-16, and that neither the TACC nor the NBMG had approved the operations of the fire ant program for the 2016-17 financial year. If so, this would indicate that Biosecurity Queensland, TACC and the NBMG were all severely in breach of the governance arrangements of the program.
In response to the RTI officer’s questions to clarify this potential serious breach of governance, Biosecurity Queensland changed its tune. This time Biosecurity Queensland told the RTI officer that TACC had endorsed the first three of its quarterly reports all in one meeting in May 2015 and the NBMG had endorsed the program’s 2014-15 annual report in October 2015. Biosecurity Queensland also told the RTI officer that it does not hold copies of the minutes or communiques of those meetings. It is inconceivable that Biosecurity Queensland would not hold copies of minutes that endorsed its reports.
I then formed the view that Biosecurity Queensland was denying me access to documents that would potentially reveal serious breaches of the program’s governance:
I requested an external review of my application from the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) because I was concerned that I was being denied access to those documents in order to cover-up potential breaches of governance. The OIC rejected my application because it ‘lacked merit’.
‘Merit’ according to the OIC means the likelihood that an external review would gain access to the documents I sought. The OIC came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t by determining that Biosecurity Queensland was the workgroup that would hold the relevant documents, if they existed, by accepting Biosecurity Queensland’s assurance that they did not hold the documents and by determining that there were no further searches the OIC could request Biosecurity Queensland to undertake. Therefore, the OIC determined my application for an external review of my RTI application lacked merit.
The Commissioner did acknowledge my ‘concerns about the conduct of Biosecurity Queensland.’ ‘However,’ he said ‘in an external review, the OIC has no jurisdiction…..to investigate the conduct of agency officers.’ It seems to me the Commissioner was saying that I had two chances of getting access to the minutes of Tramp Ant Consultative Committee meetings or the minutes of meetings of the Red Imported Fire Ant National Biosecurity Management Group during 2015-16: mine and Buckley’s.
Neither Biosecurity Queensland nor the national oversight committee can be trusted to tell the public the truth about the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, the true state of the infestation or how $400m of public money has been wasted. It is now time to open-up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny.
Biosecurity Queensland needs to publish all program reports and reviews and the minutes and meeting papers of all management and governance meetings, online, in a timely, and easy to access manner, ‘administratively, as a matter of course’ in accordance with The Right to Information Act 2009.