A new Steering Committee is 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland spends another $411.4m of public money on the Fire Ant Program over the next ten years. But already it has approved Biosecurity Queensland’s Ten-Year Eradication Plan that has never been independently validated, performance-data-free progress reports and a top-heavy workforce. Biosecurity Queensland is still making 100% of program decisions. It is likely the new Fire Ant Program Steering Committee will repeat the governance failures of its predecessors if it is not held accountable to the public for ensuring that public money spent on the fire ant program is the best use for the public good. 6th June 2018
In December 2016, I asked the then Chair of the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, ‘Why Queensland was putting in 10% of the funding for the (fire ant) program but making 100% of program decisions?’ I documented for him how previous oversight committees had reported to the Ministers’ Forum, (the forum that signs-off on funding for the program), that eradicating fire ants was technically feasible and the best use of public money when independent scientific reviews either doubted the eradication effort was working or said, categorically, that it wasn’t.
I also quoted to him auditor Deloitte’s assessment of the performance of previous oversight committees. In 2013 Deloitte doubted the ability of those committees to be accountable for the use of public money because they accepted program reports that were no more than ‘narratives’ that did not report against a set of specific, performance indicators, could not explain the variance between planned actions and those that actually occurred and could not provide any trend analysis or cost benefit analysis of program initiatives.
The consequence of poor governance and incompetent management of the fire ant program over the past sixteen years is an infestation that is over ten times what it was in 2001 and getting bigger.
Minister Joyce answered my question by saying, ‘Good question!’ and arranged for a new Steering Committee with an independent Chair, to be 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland’s uses public money on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. The ‘National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program – South-east Queensland Governance Plan July 2017’ clearly states that ‘The steering committee will be responsible for making expenditure decisions for the program within the budget agreed by the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum.’
The new Steering Committee is made up of representative from all the Australian jurisdictions that are paying for the Fire Ant Eradication Program: 50% of the funding comes from the Commonwealth government and the rest comes from the State and Territory governments. The members of the Steering Committee responsible for the expenditure of $411.4m of public money on the fire ant program over the next ten years are:
Chair: Dr Wendy Craik
Commonwealth: Josephine Laduzoo
NSW: Dr Bruce Christie
VIC: Dr Emily Phillips
QLD: Dr John Robertson
WA: Dr Sonya Broughton
NT: Sarah Corcoran
Tasmania: Dr Lloyd Klumpp
But, so far, it is clear that Biosecurity Queensland is still making 100% of program decisions. The new Fire Ant Program Steering Committee has:
It is likely the new Steering Committee will follow in the foot-steps of its predecessors unless it is held accountable to the public for ensuring that Biosecurity Queensland spends more public money on a fire ant program that is scientifically and economically sound.
The new Steering Committee approved Biosecurity Queensland’s Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program (2018-28) that has not been independently validated.
The new Steering Committee has approved Biosecurity Queensland’s Ten-Year Eradication Program (2018-28), that is going to cost the public $411.4m, when there is not a single scrap of scientific or economic evidence that an eradication program is either technically feasible of the best use of public money. It is substantially the same as the failed Sixteen Year Eradication Program (2001-17).
Independent scientific advice has always been that the best use of public money is for an aggressive containment program. But in 2001, the Henry Palaszczuk, the Queensland minister at the time, and father of the current Queensland Premier, proposed an eradication program because he knew the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments would fund an eradication program, but not a containment program. So, an ill-fated, incompetently managed eradication attempt commenced towards the end of 2001.
By as early as September 2002, independent reviewers doubted the eradication attempt was likely to succeed and said the program should revert to a containment program if the ants were not virtually eradicated by 2004. Of course, this did not happen. So, it was not surprising that, in 2010, reviewers were shocked at the ever-expanding extent of the invasion and said, categorically, the attempt to eradicate fire ants was not working and the program should revert to one of containment and suppression until the program was able to define the boundaries of the infestation and developed more effective methods.
By 2014, the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, concerned about the ever-expanding fire ant infestation and the enormous amount of public money already spent on an eradication attempt, commissioned a review to determine if continuing an eradication effort was technically feasible and the best use of public money or whether the program should transition to one of containment and management. That became the Magee review of 2015 which confessed it could not determine the best course of action because Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data. Nevertheless, with no data, the Magee review recommended continuing with the eradication effort, with the same failing programs, for another ten years with the same amount of money again: another $411.4m of public money.
In 2015, the Biosecurity Queensland declared it had defined the boundaries of the fire ant infestation, limited the extent of the invasion and eradicated two incursions of the pest. Backed by the oversight committee, the program moved back into eradication mode, even though:
Again, in 2016, the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum called for a review to determine the best use of public money: continuing an eradication effort or transitioning to one of containment and management program. But, in July 2017, again on the advice of the oversight committee, the Ministers’ Forum approved another $411.4m of public money, for a Ten-Year Eradication Program which is simply more of the failed sixteen-year eradication attempt and a likely waste even more public money with no public benefit.
The new Steering Committee endorses Biosecurity Queensland’s performance data-free progress reports
The new Steering Committee has endorsed Biosecurity Queensland first quarter report for the fire ant program for 2017-18 that is no better than the sort of reports which caused auditor Deloitte in 2013 to question the ability of previous oversight committees to be accountable for the use of public money. Deloitte noted that because the Biosecurity Queensland does not collect consistent and reliable performance data, program reports are no more than ‘narratives’ that do not report against a set of specific, performance indicators, cannot explain the variance between planned actions and those that actually occurred and cannot provide any trend analysis or cost benefit analysis of program initiatives. The first quarter report for 2017-18 does the same: it simply lists the activities undertaken, the activities they intend to take, but gives no explanations for why previously planned actions did not happen and does not report progress against performance indicators.
The new Steering Committee is 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland uses public money, but is endorsing Biosecurity Queensland’s performance-data free reports.
The new Steering Committee has approved Biosecurity Queensland’s top-heavy workforce for 2017-18: almost half as many non-operational staff as field staff in an operations-based program.
It is questionable why the Steering Committee would approve Biosecurity Queensland’s Work Plan and Budget for 2017-18 to fund almost half as many non-operational staff as field staff in a highly operations-based program. The staffing plan is for forty-three full-time equivalent positions as directors, administrators, Workplace Health and Safety officers, Human Resources officers, policy and governance officers, planning and quality assurance officers and ramp-up activity officers. Those 43 positions will cost 34% of the labour budget and be almost half the size of the operational workforce. The operational workforce, on the other hand, will be seventy-two full-time equivalent positions employed as field assistants, compliance officers and community engagement officers and cost 56% of the program’s labour budget. And it is also questionable why the Steering Committee would approve Biosecurity Queensland funding eleven scientists on the fire ant program, costing another 10% of the labour budget, when Biosecurity Queensland has been criticised for failing to use the expertise of university and CSIRO scientists.
The new Steering Committee is 100% responsible for how Biosecurity Queensland uses public money on the fire ant program, but Biosecurity Queensland is still making 100% of program decisions. The new Fire Ant Program Steering needs to be held accountable to the public for how Biosecurity Queensland spends public money on the fire ant program.