Writings: Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Program asks stakeholders for advice. Will they listen this time?

In May 2018, Biosecurity Queensland invited industry and community stakeholders from south-east Queensland to tell them how to better manage the fire ant program and better engage with stakeholders. They said the same thing reviewers have said over the years: that Biosecurity Queensland is too slow to respond to new detections, is not controlling the movement of fire ant carriers, is not giving the community the most basic information about fire ants and the program, manages poorly and is not engaging with stakeholders. Basically, they told Biosecurity Queensland to just do its job. Will Biosecurity Queensland listen this time? 12th June 2018

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For the first time since the fire ant program started in 2001, Biosecurity Queensland invited representatives from the community and industries in south-east Queensland that are affected by the fire ant invasion and the fire ant program to a Stakeholders’ Forum in May 2018. The purpose of the forum was ‘to seek stakeholder feedback on the management of fire ants (and) to explore options for greater stakeholder and engagement and collaboration to help achieve the 10 Year Eradication Plan.’

About forty representatives from industry and the community told Biosecurity Queensland many of the same things reviewers of the program have told Biosecurity Queensland for years: That it is:

  • slow response to new fire ant detections,
  • failing to control the human-assisted spread of fire ants,
  • failing to keep the public informed with the most basic information about fire ants and the program
  • poorly managing the fire ant program and
  • poorly engaging with stakeholders.

Biosecurity Queensland’s report on the forum says stakeholder feedback are ‘ideas for further program improvement.’ In fact, stakeholders at the May 2018 forum simply told Biosecurity Queensland to do what it should have been doing for years, but didn’t. Which is why the same problems remain. Will Biosecurity Queensland listen AND act THIS time?

Biosecurity Queensland ’s slow response to treating new detections.

Stakeholders said fire ant nests left untreated for a long time give the impression that Biosecurity Queensland doesn’t think the fire ant program is important.  Because of Biosecurity Queensland’s slow response, stakeholders want landowners to be able to treat fire ant nests their own properties.

This should not be necessary. Biosecurity Queensland received $400m of public money over the past sixteen years to do just that, were repeatedly reminded to do that, but didn’t. The science review in October 2002 said the ‘delays to the treatment of all land parcels within the Treatment Area should be reduced to a minimum.’ The 2006 scientific review said that ‘time between identifying a new nest and treating it should be only 24-48 hours.’ 

Biosecurity Queensland’s slow response to new detections creates a huge backlog of nests to be treated. In 2013, the then LNP Minister, John McVeigh, wanted to reduce that backlog by removing the ‘red-tape’ that stipulated that only properly trained staff could treat fire ant nests so that ‘anyone who wanted to give it a go, could.’ The danger is, of course, that untrained people could get seriously stung or cause nests to move before they can be destroyed.

The LNP attempt to push treatment back onto landowners finally failed because of the question ‘Who pays?’ Unless Biosecurity Queensland compensates landowners for treating their own properties and any medical costs they might incur if they get stung, it is not likely to happen.

Biosecurity Queensland’s failure to control the human-assisted movement of fire ants.

 Recognising that people carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in loads of fire ant carriers like soil, mulch and potted plants is the main cause of the continuing spread of fire ants, stakeholders wanted more information on what they CAN do to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants: not just want they CAN’T do.

Stakeholders are happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation, under the Biosecurity Act 2014, to be responsible for taking all reasonable precautions to ensure they don’t spread fire ants. But they also want Biosecurity Queensland to fulfil its own General Biosecurity Obligation by simply doing its job. By:

  • Training some field offers to become authorised persons who can deal with compliance issues, if required. It might be better if Biosecurity Queensland re-instated the large team of Biosecurity Inspectors it dismantled: inspectors who identified high risk enterprises, worked with them to develop risk management plans, audited those plans and, if necessary, prosecuted those who failed to comply.
  • Reintroducing the use of Approved (Fire Ant) Risk Management Plans for high risk enterprises and Quality Assurance programs for suppliers to help them mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants.
  • Approving land development applications, subject to them containing suitable fire ant management plans.
  • Controlling the movement of fire ant carriers in and out of biosecurity zones, including weekend markets.
  • Providing more information on changes to Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones, fire ant carriers and risk mitigation measures.

Biosecurity Queensland’s failure to provide stakeholders with the most basic information

Biosecurity Queensland says ‘Community apathy is the greatest enemy’.  This is not true. 70% – 80% of the detections of new fire ant nests have been made by a vigilant public. But the public stay engaged and vigilant when Biosecurity Queensland does not publish the most basic information about fire ants and about the program.

Stakeholders simply want Biosecurity Queensland to do its job by:

  • Informing the public where fire ants: by rationalising its plethora of differing maps (maps of control zones, treatment zones and geographical areas) into a single map and keeping it up to date.
  • Publishing schedules of the program’s activities.
  • Putting up signage to inform people “You are entering a fire ant infested area.”
  • Providing truthful, good and bad, information about how the program is going.
  • Enacting an early warning notification system to let the public know of new fire ant outbreaks.
  • Publishing clear information on the chemicals used to kill and control fire ants.

Biosecurity Queensland’s poor management of the program.

 Feedback from the stakeholders at the forum echoed feedback from independent reviews of how Biosecurity Queensland runs the program:  feedback that’s been ignored.

  • The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland lacks the ability to plan strategically and lacks the ability to set directions. Stakeholders repeated that by saying Biosecurity Queensland needs to be more strategic in identifying which industries to work with and in what capacity and to redirect its role towards enabling and auditing rather than doing.
  • The Scientific Review of 2010 said Biosecurity Queensland needs to conduct a properly peer-reviewed cost-benefit-analysis to compare controlling and potentially eradicating fire ants with containing and suppressing fire ant populations to determine which is likely to be more cost effective. Stakeholders asked Biosecurity Queensland to consider alternative models employed by other jurisdictions.
  • The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland has no framework for prioritising funding. Stakeholders said Biosecurity Queensland needs to better aligning program resources with agreed priority efforts to build public confidence that available resources are being wisely invested.

Biosecurity Queensland’s poor stakeholder engagement

 It’s hard to take seriously Biosecurity Queensland’s aim for the Stakeholders’ Forum, ‘to seek feedback on the management of fire ants and to explore options for greater stakeholder engagement.’

It is hard to believe Biosecurity Queensland when it says ‘controlling fire ants is a whole of community problem, not just a government problem that requires a genuine acceptance of shared rights, risks, roles and responsibilities and across government, community and industry and a trusting and open approach to sharing and solving problems together.’

It is hard to believe what Biosecurity Queensland says about engaging with stakeholders because the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 shows that what Biosecurity Queensland says does not match what is does. The Capability Review said Biosecurity Queensland:

  • Lacks the ability to build partnerships inside and outside of government: including with industry partners, other State and local governments agencies, community groups and the broader Queensland community.
  • Lacks the ability to build partnerships with universities and CRCs to create innovative approaches to biosecurity.
  • Takes a regulatory approach to key stakeholders, rather than engage them in outcomes based partnership.
  • Communicates with partners predominantly to seek input into program specific policy or legislation.
  • Focusses its planning predominantly on its own operations and approaches others outside the program only to seek resources or technical assistance.

So, it is hard to believe that Biosecurity Queensland’s will act on stakeholder feedback from the May 2018 forum and do things it should have been doing for sixteen years: ie

  • Form industry and community stakeholder advisory groups when the Scientific Advisory Panel and the Cross-Agency Task Force were abandoned years ago.
  • Establish stronger relations with existing community and groups industry groups operating in south-east Queensland.
  • Be more transparent and truthful and provide more information on program status and detection status, both positive and negative stories, when Biosecurity Queensland says access to program information is available only through slow and expensive Right to Information applications.
  • Provide more sector relevant information on movement controls.
  • Provide risk management kits and plans to residents and industries.

It is hard to believe Biosecurity Queensland will act on any feedback from the Fire Ant Program Stakeholders’ Forum in May 2018 because, basically, stakeholders just told Biosecurity Queensland to do its job: the same thing independent reviewers have told Biosecurity Queensland for years.