In 2001, Minister Henry Palaszczuk rejected scientific advice to tightly contain the spread of fire ants in south-east Queensland to use national funding for an eradication program to create 400 jobs when Queensland’s unemployment rate was 8.5%. Biosecurity Queensland’s 2001-2016 Fire Ant Eradication Program was a gold mine for recruitment agencies, wasted $500m of public money, and made the infestation ten times worse. 2019, Minister Mark Furner repeats history, accepts a report that recommends continuing an eradication effort while acknowledging no scientific data to support that, uses the fire ant program to create 300 low skilled jobs when Queensland’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. Biosecurity Queensland chaotic management creates high staff turnover, a gold mine for recruitment agencies, wastes another $80m of public money and fire ants are spreading, out of control, beyond Biosecurity Queensland’s operations. Time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Ministers of Agriculture, Program Directors and members of oversight committee since 2001 accountable for this biosecurity disaster and this colossal waste of over $500m of public money. 13th May 2019
In 2001, Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk rejected scientific advice to tightly contain the fire ant infestation centred on the Port of Brisbane and the south-western suburbs of Brisbane to mount a nationally funded eradication program to create jobs for four hundred unskilled workers at a time when Queensland’s unemployment level was a whopping 8.5%. It was a gold mine for the recruitment agency, wasted $500m of public money and the fire ant infestation got ten times worse.
Long term unemployed folk on Centrelink benefits were told they would lose their benefits if they did not join the program. In 2003, Team Leaders said 50%-60% of the initial staff intake were not functionally literate and did not want to be there. In 2005, the program auditor said the workforce was extremely difficult and costly to manage because the initial recruitment process did not select the most suitable candidates and the program was compromised by poor staff attendance and the high rate of disciplinary incidents.
The same was said about program managers. A lot of team leaders were good. Many were good people who had recently been retrenched. But overall management was not. One review in 2003 said managers did not have the skills to manage a large, diverse and complex labour force. Another review in 2003 said the biggest problem with the program was the lack of any sense of urgency, chaotic management and no planning. Field staff said managers constantly changed procedures and managed people by yelling at them. Managers couldn’t manage the Australian Workers Union either. The union secured a Certified Agreement to prevent any punitive action against staff for poor performance for three years when the threat of strike was hollow: and the program suffered.
The 2001-16 National Fire Ant Eradication Program wasted $500m of public money and the fire ant infestation got ten times worse. Fire ants now infest Redland, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan cities and the Sunshine Coast, Moreton Bay, Scenic Rim, Somerest and Lockyer Valley regional areas.
Chaotic and wasteful management continued. By 2015, the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review came to the inevitable conclusion that Biosecurity Queensland cannot address current and future biosecurity needs because it is poorly organised and cannot plan strategically. And because it does not collect performance data, Biosecurity Queensland’s decisions about the use of resources, like staff, are often conflicted and inconsistent.
Minister Furner, responsible for the 2017-27 New Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program, repeats history. He accepts a recommendation to continue the eradication effort, even though the reviewers acknowledge there is no scientific data to support that recommendation.
Again, the 2017-27 Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is another jobs creation program for three hundred unemployed Queenslanders at a time when Queensland’s unemployment rate is 6% when the national average is 5%. To avoid the possibility of another of union take-over and to give management more control over staff, the program now runs on contact staff. Chaotic management leads to high staff turnover and poor performance, but another gold mine for recruitment agencies and another colossal waste of public money.
There are few selection criteria for field staff, so the results are mixed. Some are good. Some are not physically capable of doing the work. Staff training seems to be mostly about what not to do: don’t use your mobile phone, don’t forget your hat, don’t stand around, don’t forget your identification badge, don’t leave before 4pm, and most crucially, don’t talk to anyone, including the media, about the program. Field staff can start work not knowing what a fire ant nest looks like or how to spread bait. When people feel ill-equipped to do the job, they are likely to leave, and do.
The same can be said of managers. Some are good. Others with no experience or skills in managing teams are not given any training. Stressed managers, out of their depth, can become abusive and contradictory: and staff leave.
Team leaders are not given clear worksheets. Teams can stand around for hours getting ready for work, wasting time and money. This frustrates many, who leave.
When staff are told to come in on wet days, when bait can’t be spread, they can sit around doing little for hours, until they are told they can go home: wasting time and money.
When property owners have not been warned that a treatment team is in their area, the team can waste a lot of time contacting the owner before they can do any work: wasting time and money.
Chaotic management creates high staff turnover which creates a gold-mine for recruitment agencies but a colossal waste of public money.
Biosecurity Queensland pays the recruitment agencies $50 per hour for contract field staff: more for team leaders and managers. $29 of the $50 that goes to the field worker. A team of ten field staff costs $10,000 for a 20 hour week: $5,800 to staff and $4,200 to the recruitment agency.
If a team of ten is standing around for five hours during that week, that’s a waste of $2500. If the program is employing 300 field staff for a 20 hour week, that’s $300,000 per week: $126,000 for the recruitment agencies. If this is the case, it is no wonder Biosecurity Queensland blew is entire $2017-18 budget of $38m before the end of the year: forcing the Queensland government to make an advance payment on its 2018-19 contribution to keep the program going.
So far, the 2017-27 Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program has wasted another $80m of public money and fire ants have established themselves in nine new housing estates north, south, south-west and west beyond Biosecurity Queensland operations.
It is time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Ministers of Agriculture, Program Directors and members of oversight committee since 2001 accountable for this biosecurity disaster and this colossal waste of more than $500m of public money.