Biosecurity Queensland has been given another $411m of public money to mount a new National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program for another ten years; on condition the program is more transparent and publicly accountable. But all the public gets is a three page summary of the ten year plan that got it the money. Why? Because the plan has not been independently assessed as scientifically sound? Because the National Steering Committee is not willing to take 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland spends another $411m of public money? It is time to open up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny by making all program reports and reviews and the minutes of all management and governance committee meetings available on line, in an easy to access and timely manner. 19th March 2018
In July 2017, the Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum agreed to fund the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program with another $411m of public money over another ten years, on condition the program is more accountable to the public. So, far Biosecurity Queensland has released only a three-page summary of the plan.
When I asked the program Director for a copy of the full program, he flicked that responsibility to the program’s National Steering Committee, even though under the Queensland Right to Information Act he has a responsibility to release such public information ‘administratively, as a matter of course.’
Is Biosecurity Queensland not releasing the full version of the new Ten Year Eradication Plan to the public because it has not been independently assessed as scientifically sound?
The science behind the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has come under constant scrutiny. In 2006, an independent scientific review team said the science behind the program was fragmented and ad hoc. The 2010 independent scientific review team said Biosecurity Queensland’s methods were not eradicating fire ants. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland does not collaborate with universities and Cooperative Research Centres. Consequently, even the three-page summary of the Ten Year Eradication Plan lacks scientific credibility.
The program’s ‘rolling’ treatment strategy, starting on the western and south-western edges of the infestation then moving towards the east, lacks credibility because Biosecurity Queensland does not know, after sixteen years, where the edge of the infestation is. Fire ant experts from the USA said in 2001 the first thing the fire ant program needed to do was to define the extent of the infestation: ‘put your arms around it’ they said. In 2010, the independent scientific review team said Biosecurity Queensland had still not defined the boundaries of the infestation. Now, Biosecurity Queensland just keeps the real extent of the infestation secret. The last map Biosecurity Queensland published of the fire ant infestation was in July 2016. Since then, fire ants have spread well beyond the bounds of that map.
The program’s plan to put additional resources into preventing the human-assisted spread of fire ants (the most common cause) totally lacks credibility because Biosecurity Queensland reduced its large team of biosecurity inspectors, who worked to prevent the human-assisted spread of fire ants, down to a mere handful, and virtually dumped the responsibility for stopping the spread of fire ants onto the public.
The program’s plan to confirm previously infested suburbs as being fire ant free also lacks credibility. Despite being required to develop a post-treatment validation protocol in 2004, Biosecurity Queensland did not. The 2016 scientific review team revealed that Biosecurity Queensland still does not have one. And program reviews have complained that Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data: meaning it can’t prove anything.
Biosecurity Queensland’s proposed targets for the ten-year plan also lack credibility. Program reviews, most recently one done by the Queensland Audit Office in 2017, have criticised Biosecurity Queensland for reporting inputs and activities rather than results towards program goals. The new Ten-Year Eradication Plan does more of the same: intending to report on the number of hectares treated or inspected, but not the results of doing that: ie the number of nests found or the area found to be fire ant free, or not.
Finally, the statements that ‘the program is recognised as a world leader in the eradication effort’ and that its current methods ‘were used to successfully eradicate three fire ant incursions’ totally lack credibility, because, as many reviews have noted, Biosecurity Queensland collects no reliable and consistent data to enable it to prove anything.
Or perhaps, the new National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee will not release a full version of the new Ten Year Eradication Plan because it is not willing to be held 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland spends another $411m of public money.
In 2013, the program auditor questioned the ability of the previous oversight committee to ensure that Biosecurity Queensland was using public money to best effect because it accepted progress reports that reported activities, not results: reports the auditor said were no more than ‘narratives.’
When he was Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, I asked Barnaby Joyce, ‘How come Queensland puts in 10% of the money but makes 100% of program decisions?’ He said that was a good question. I believe the creation of a new Steering Committee, made up of representatives from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments who pay for the program, is part of his response to my question: meaning the new Steering Committee needs to be 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland spends another $411m of public money And the Tasmanian Minister for Primary Industries and Water wrote to me to say ‘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 Ten-Year Eradication Plan says the new, independently chaired, National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee has been established to provide clear guidance to the program and to monitor it against targets and milestones and to ensure this 100% publicly funded program is transparent and accountable. But will they? Or will they simply rubber-stamp Biosecurity Queensland’s decisions – as its predecessor did?
The Minister’s Forum approved the new ten-year plan in July 2017 and the new Steering Committee has been in operation for some months already, but the Committee has not made this most basic program document available to the public: only a three-page summary.
So far, the new Steering Committee has committed to providing more public information about the program, but is shying away from opening the program up to serious public scrutiny: not even making the minutes of its own meetings accessible to the public as even its predecessor did.
The new National Fire Ant Program Steering Committee needs to take 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland spends another $411m of public money. But will it? Will it simply rubber-stamp Biosecurity Queensland’s scientifically unsound plans?
It is time to open up this 100% publicly funded program to public scrutiny by making all program reports and reviews and the minutes of all management and governance committee meetings publicly available on line, in an easy to access and timely manner.