Media: Biosecurity Qld manager says fire ant program 'world class.' Facts: infestation 12 times worse, waste of public money. Pam Swepson interview with Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane 5th August 2019.

• In 2003, I made a public interest disclosure to the Crime and Misconduct Commission that the fire ant program was over-stating its success and not reporting the serious issues threatening it. They rejected my claim. Mr Dudgeon is the latest program manager to continue the practice. He told Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane on 31 July 2019 the program is ‘world class.’ • The fire ant infestation is twelve times worse than when detected in 2001. • Program modelling shows that fire ants always outside the program’s treatment areas. • Fire ants are being transported up and down the M1 to the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast and out along the Warego Highway because Biosecurity Queensland has no controls. • First year of new 2017-27 $411m ten year plan: under-treated a fraction on the western edge, missed infestations further west, abandoned heavy infestations in Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan and Gold Coast cities. • My information is not current because Biosecurity Queensland blocks my Right to Information applications. • 2016 review said eradication still feasible, admitted it could not make a definitive statement because of the program lacks data and contradicted all previous scientific reviews that said eradication never feasible. • Six scientific reviews, audit reports, the Queensland Biosecurity Capability review of 2016 and the Queensland Audit Office in 2017 say Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data: can’t prove anything. • Biosecurity Queensland disbanded its large team of biosecurity inspectors so the program did not look like a containment program (and lose Commonwealth funding). Industry reps at a stakeholder forum in 2018 said re-introduce risk management plans and compliance officers. • I continue to hold the Crime and Misconduct Commission, in part, responsible for the continuing spread of fire ants. • The program did not get more money for a new ten year plan: they just got more of the same to keep doing the same things that have failed in the past: just another waste of public money.

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Steve Austin: Now let’s go to someone who in 2003 made a public interest declaration to the Crime and Misconduct Commission expressing concerns the program was being overstated: its effectiveness being overstated and more. Her name is Pam Swepson. She has a PhD. She was working on the fire ant eradication program and famously or infamously the Crime and Misconduct Commission rejected, or found against her complaints.

I’ve asked her back into the studio today after the interview with the Chief Executive Officer of the program on this radio station last week – Graeme Dudgeon.

First of all, Pam Swepson, take me back to 2003:  after what you’ve heard, are you hearing the same things you heard way back then when you originally went to the Crime and Misconduct Commission? Come close to the microphone please.

Pam Swepson.            Yes I am Steve. Yes, in 2003, I was the person who was producing the program reports that were going to the Parliament, the funders and the public and I knew that they were overstating the success of the program and under-reporting the many serious issues threatening the program. And that was when I went to the Crime and Misconduct Commission and made that disclosure. And the CMC took a long time to come to their conclusion that there was no substance to my complaint. So, the overstating of success and the under reporting of issues threatening the program have continued. And I believe that the interview you had with Mr Dudgeon last week was just another one of the long line of Directors and managers who’ve continued to mislead the public by overstating the success of the program.

SA     Let me just play a little bit of what Mr Dudgeon had to say on this radio station last week.

Graeme Dudgeon        We’ve had a review in 2016 and that review found that this incursion is still eradicable and that’s what we’re basing the program on.

SA     The fire ants were first detected in Brisbane in February 2001, but it’s thought they may have been here for twenty years earlier.

GD     I think it was ten years.

SA      Ten years. OK. Why has it not been eradicated? If it’s been THAT long and the program’s so great and there’s nothing to see here and everything’s going well and the program’s world-class and it’s been going since 2001, at what point does someone say ‘OK. We’re wrong’?

GD     So, before this ten year program, there was insufficient funding and insufficient certainty of funding. And I think you were told that by my Director General in 2017. This is much more money than we had before and it is now enough to do the job. And part of the review identified that this was the amount of money required.

SA     So, on your vector of planning, when will you eradicate? Give me the date. If you’ve now got the money to eradicate it, at what date? When?

GD      It’s a ten year plan.

SA     So in ten years, they’ll be all gone?

GD    That’s the plan.

SA     In ten years, they’ll be all gone?

GD   That is the plan.

SA    Everyone I speak to says the program’s a disaster. That we’re spreading them, that there’s no proper washing facilities. Trucks aren’t washing their gear. Nests are spreading everywhere. The reason why middle management turn up…I won’t go into that. But the simple fact is the program is NOT working. That it is simply chewing through massive amounts of tax payer dollars and no one is prepared to say ‘Sorry. We’ve actually failed.’

GD    So let me tell you the facts. So the area we are eradicating in the west, we will soon finish the rounds of treatment later this year. And we are currently calling landholders in that area and they are telling us that the fire ants are no longer there: or there are very few of them.

SA   That’s Graeme Dudgeon, the Chief Executive Officer of the fire ant program. And you heard that interview, I think, Pam Swepson. Just tell me how much worse now is the infestation across south-east Queensland?

PS        Well the estimate around about 2002 was about 40,000ha. The program is now claiming it is 500,000ha and it could be worse. So that’s twelve times as bad as its ever been. I mean their own modelling has shown that fire ants have continued to spread outside their operations since the program began. So, there’s been a steady march of the fire ants. People say does it go north-south or east-west. It’s actually going up and down the M1 to the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast and out along the Warego Highway.

SA .   In other words, they’re been transported.

PS        Exactly.

SA .  Now Graeme Dudgeon told me that things were different now, that they’re going west to east in terms of their strategy for focussing on that. What’s right or wrong about that, as far as you’re concerned?

PS        They don’t know where the western boundary is. And if you’re just going to treat a fraction of the infestation instead of the whole infestation, you’re just leaving holes in the blanket of bait. Since this new program started there’s been at least five significant infestations found west of the boundary. So, they started too far east. So, they don’t know where the western boundary is. And while they’re putting all their energies into that, the major infestations in Brisbane, Logan, Gold Coast, Ipswich cities just remain, basically, untreated. And in the first year of the new plan they basically gave up doing any spot treatments in there because there were too many reports from the public.

SA       The program report itself for the first ¼ of 2018 -19 says what, Pam Swepson?

PS        The first quarter of the new program?

SA   This is the new funding program they say is going to fix everything.

PS        For the new program, the schedule was for 3 rounds of bait, over the western area each year for two years. Now, I’ll just remind you that in 2001, fire ant expert said, if you’re going to eradicate, you need four rounds of bait, each year, for three years over the entire infestation. That’s a total of twelve applications. The plan was for only SIX applications. For the first year, they managed to get down 1 ½ rounds in the first year. So, under-treating, instead of doing comprehensive treatment is just throwing good bait after bad and good money after bad.

SA       So the program report for 2018-19.

PS       That was the annual report for 2017-18. The first year of the program. I don’t have the annual report for this year because the program hasn’t posted it on their website and they’re blocking my Right to Information application to get more current information.

SA .  So, you’ve got a Freedom of Information, or Right to Information request in with them?

PS        Yes. Which is currently being blocked.

SA    Right. OK. My guest is Pam Swepson. She was the original whistleblower on the fire ant program. She went to the Crime and Misconduct Commission and the Crime and Misconduct Commission rejected her claims. This is ABC radio Brisbane.

PS        May I just comment on the 2016 review that Mr Dudgeon commented on?

SA       Please.

PS       It contradicted every other scientific review that had gone before it. It did claim it was feasible to eradicate fire ants but they put great caution in that report saying …They were commissioned to do modelling of whether the program …The Agriculture Ministers Forum commissioned them to decide where do we go from here: continuing an eradication effort or revert to a containment effort. The reviewers admitted they couldn’t do that modelling because there was no data for that. And on the basis of no data, they suggested continuing with an eradication effort to do more of the same, with the same amount of money. It contradicted all previous reviews which said it was NEVER feasible to eradicate fire ants and the only really serious option was to contain and suppress them.

SA       What did the Queensland Audit Office report of 2017 into Biosecurity Queensland say about the program?

PS        Well it was just last one of a long list of people who’ve been criticising the program for having no performance data. Six independent reviews, a Biosecurity Capability review in 2015, and then again the Queensland Audit Office in 2017 said Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data, therefore it can’t prove anything. It’s got no performance indicators of what it’s achieved over the life of the program.

SA .    How many audit reports or scientific reviews of the eradication program have there been?

PS        There’s been six scientific reviews, there’s been at least three audit reports by Deloitte, I think, and there was the Queensland Biosecurity Capability review in 2015.

SA       And most, if not all, say that Biosecurity Queensland doesn’t collect reliable data on its work.

PS        Correct.

SA       There used to be a team of twenty biosecurity inspectors. What happened to them?

PS .    Well, they were disbanded because the program was concerned the program would look like a containment program instead of an eradication program and that the Commonwealth funders would say, if you’re confident you can eradicate, you don’t need all of these inspectors. And so, they were actively disbanded. This was a team of about twenty fully qualified inspectors who would go out and identify high risk businesses, work with them to develop risk management plans, audit those plans and prosecute those who didn’t follow them.

And in fact, industry stakeholders, industry representatives, sorry, at a stakeholder’s forum last year said why don’t you have more of these, put them back in again: re-introduce the risk management plans, re-introduce more compliance officers to help us and up-date your map so we know where the fire ant containment areas are. And put those back in again because industry reps were actually asking for that.

SA       So the industries were asking for these biosecurity inspectors?

PS        Yes.

SA       And they’re not there?

PS        Yes.

SA       Why won’t Biosecurity Queensland put them back?

PS        Because the program will then look like a containment program which doesn’t get Commonwealth funding whereas an eradication program does.

SA       My guest is Pam Swepson. Before I let you go, you have a number of Right to Information requests in with the department?

PS        I do.

SA       Seeking what?

PS        I ask for all of the monthly reports. The program is required to report to Steering Committee on a monthly basis. I ask for their monthly reports. I ask for their quarterly reports. I ask for their annual reports. I ask for the Steering Committee minutes and attachments to that. It’s like getting blood out of a stone to get those.

SA       How long has you been asking for this?

PS        The last one must be up to four or five months I’ve been waiting for this application to go through. And that’s standard.

SA       And they’re blocking it?

PS     It take a very long time and a whole lot gets taken out.

SA     Redacted? So you can’t see what’s said?

PS        Yes, some of it is redacted or I’m just denied access to various documents. This is a 100% publicly funded program. The Right to Information Act says these documents should be made available to the public administratively, as a matter of course, and that an application via Right to Information should be the last resort. In terms of this program, it’s the ONLY resort, and then it’s blocked.

SA       How do you feel now about the Crime and Misconduct Commission saying there was no truth to your original concerns.

PS      I have always held them, in part, accountable for the fact that fire ants continue to spread because they allowed the department to change the terms of my disclosure, allowed the department to investigate the complaint against it and obviously find no fault on their part. So, I hold the Crime and Misconduct Commission, in part, responsible for this continuing biosecurity disaster.

SA       As the person who used to write the ministerial reports, some time ago now, but you used to write them, do you believe the new funding secured from the Commonwealth, $400m worth of Commonwealth funds, sorry public funds for this program will kill the fire ants or solve the problem in ten years as Graeme Dudgeon promised last week?

PS        Not at all. I mean it’s just more of the same. In mean, in 2015 the program just asked for another $400m. I mean the first ten year program was $400m and it made a mess. They’ve simply asked for another $400m but the problem is twelve times worse. So, if they’re saying they’ve got extra money, they haven’t. They’ve just got more of the same. And I think it’s just going to be more of the same program. It hasn’t changed. It’s just going to be more public money down the tube.

SA       Thanks for coming in.

PS       My pleasure.

SA       Pam Swepson was the original whistleblower who made a public interest disclosure to the Crime and Misconduct Commission back in 2003. They found against Pam Swepson, but you’ve heard her observations about that. This is ABC radio Brisbane. We’ll continue to follow the story of the fire ant program and its progress.