Media: Biosecurity Queensland's fire ant program an 'unmitigated disaster'. Pam Swepson interview with Mark Braybrook 4BC radio Brisbane 13th August 2019.

It’s never been feasible to eradicate fire ants. They were too well entrenched. We sacrificed an opportunity to contain and suppress them to chase after the last ant to kill it. Money wasted on jobs creation programs in Queensland and throwing good bait and good money after bad by under-treating the infestation. The fire ant infestation is now over 500,000ha: twelve times worse than in 2001. The program can’t find fire ants nest – the public do. The program disbanded its team of biosecurity inspectors who controlled the movement of fire ant carriers. Biosecurity Queensland’s has no evidence its under-treatment kills fire ants. Public support has been fantastic. The program’s response has been appalling, in my opinion. $400m wasted between 2001 and 2016. Another $411m for 2017-27. Original plan was for $124m over six years. Sounds like a failure to me. In 2003, I reported to the Crime and Misconduct Commission that the program was over-stating it success and under-reporting problems threatening the program to keep a lot of money coming into Queensland Treasury. The department investigated, and dismissed my complaint. The over-stating and mis-reporting continues. I try to tell the public the truth. The Queensland government contributes 10% of the funding. The Commonwealth and the other States would be appalled that they are funding 90% of the unmitigated disaster in Queensland. The Queensland government is already pushing the problem onto the public and washing their hands of it. The public has to be responsible for not spreading fire ants when they don’t know how to, or where fire ants are. The public has found 80% of new fire ant nests - not Biosecurity Queensland. The public can now treat fire ant nests – at their own expense – at the risk of getting stung or causing nests to spread. An ‘unmitigated disaster.’

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Mark Braybrook: We’ve spoken quite a bit on this program about the problem of the march of fire ants in south east Queensland. The number of nests has nearly tripled between April and May.  Quite an extraordinary amount of money has been spent: upwards of $400m in ten years, but it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Now Biosecurity Queensland’s figures show that there were nearly 9000 untreated, untreated fire ant nests across Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and the Scenic Rim as of the end of May. Now, there was only 3000 in the beginning of April. Now most of those are in Logan.

One person who has been at the forefront of trying to bring us as much information as possible about what is going on with this extermination program is Dr Pam Swepson. And she joins me this afternoon. Dr Swepson, good afternoon to you.

PS        Hello Mark and thanks for talking to me.

MB      Is it too late?

PS        Oh yes. It was too late in 2002 to eradicate them Mark. There’s never been any scientific evidence that it was possible to eradicate them. When the United States experts found them in 2001, and even our local experts said, the infestation had been there about ten years and it was too well entrenched to try and eradicate them. And the best we could do, they said, was to tightly contain them, because the main cause of spread is people carelessly and accidentally moving them around in truck and trailer loads of soil and mulch and that sort of material. And if we’d done that, tightly contained them and baited them to suppress them: you’re  never going to get rid of them but at least suppress the population. If we’d done that a long time ago in 2002, we’d be in a different situation to what we are now. But we sacrificed the opportunity to contain them to chase the last ant to try and eradicate it.

MB      What have we been spending the money on then?

PS       A lot of staff. So, in 2002 when the Americans said the quickest and cheapest way to bait them and to find them would be by helicopter, the Labor government at the time, when there was a campaign of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’,  decided to create a ground force of 400 field staff to look for and find fire ants. The auditor said that was the greatest drain on the program. And the program’s up to close to 400 staff again. And you probably need them now because the infestation is twelve times what it was in 2002.  And we’re also wasting a lot money on bait. The program is being under-treated. So, in 2002, experts said we needed four rounds of treatment every year for three years. The program now is putting down two rounds every two years, which is under-treating it. So, we’re throwing good bait after bad, and good money after bad.

MB      So basically what we’re doing is nothing.

PS       That’s right. Well, I think it’s worse than that, because the problem is twelve times worse.

MB      Mmm. At least if you weren’t doing anything you’d understand how its exploding but actually spending money on something which is not helping the problem is most probably exacerbating it because most people think at least we’re doing something.

PS       That’s right. And the ants have just continued to spread at a steady rate irrespective of anything the program has done.

MB      Why is there such a big explosion in numbers in the last couple of months?

PS       Well, they tend to be more visible during the cooler months because they build little mounds over the tops of their nests to draw the warmth of the sun down into their nest. So, they’re more visible now. But during the warmer months there can be nests underneath the ground you don’t even see. You don’t know that they’re there. So, they’re very difficult to find. They’re just more obvious now. Which doesn’t mean there’s more of them now than there was last summer, they’re just become more visible now.

MB      OK. And the money we’re spending on trying to, in inverted commas, ‘eradicate’ them, we’re not even doing that job properly.

PS       We’re not containing them. There’s three things that the program’s got to do: whatever program it is. It’s got to find them. It’s got to kill them and it’s got to stop them spreading. Now, the program can’t find them. Their own modelling has found that fire ants have always been beyond their operational area.  We can’t kill them because we’re under-treating. There is no evidence that the treatment regime they’re using, works. I mean the baits are OK, but United States evidence is if you don’t use it properly it’s no use. And the other thing we’re not doing is: they actively disbanded their large team of biosecurity inspectors who used to work with high risk businesses to help them develop risk management plans, help them audit those plans and prosecute those didn’t comply with them. They disbanded that team and there’s been one single prosecution of anyone who’s been moving fire ant carriers. So, we’re not even doing anything. I mean the public’s been fantastic. The public’s reported 80% of the detections that the program has found: by the public, not by the program. So, the public support’s been fantastic, but the corresponding response from the program has been appalling, in my opinion.

MB      So, over the ten year period over $411m.

PS       Well, they spent over $400m between 2002 and 2016

MB      Right.

PS       Now they’ve got another $411m over the next ten years. So, the first ten years was a disaster. They’ve been given another $400m.

MB      So, a billion dollars.

PS        Yes, a billion dollars over 20 years. And the original program, Mark, was for $124m over six years. $124m over six years. It’s now close to a billion dollars over twenty years. Now that sounds like a failure to me.

MB      Well, it’s an unmitigated disaster. I think it’s even worse than a failure.

PS       I think so, which is why I’ve been trying to let the public know what’s actually going on through all of the documents I get through Right to Information and what people on the ground tell me is actually happening. So, I’ve been trying to tell the public. In 2003, Mark, I blew the whistle on the program to the Crime and Misconduct Commission and said that the program was over-stating the success of the program and not reporting the serious threatening it. They let the department investigate my claim and they found cause for it – of course. And so, that’s continued: the over-stating and the under-reporting has continued. And the reason is Mark, the program brings a lot of money into Queensland. Queensland puts in 10% of the money and the other 90% comes from the Commonwealth and the other States. So this eradication program has brought a huge cash injection into the Queensland Treasury over all these years. $50m from Queensland and another $450m has come from other parts of the country.

MB      So, this is another interesting point here Pam. I mean it’s bad enough that we sit here talking about, and I’ll say it again, an unmitigated disaster with regards to the way Queensland and the government and Biosecurity Queensland has tried to control these fire ants. If you were to tell people in other States, that 90% of that unmitigated disaster has been funded by them.

PS       Exactly.

MB      There would be an enormous outcry!

PS       Well, I’ve been trying to generate that outcry Mark.

MB      I mean, its extraordinary.

PS       It is.

MB      I had someone on from Biosecurity Queensland who rattled off all the figures and all that sort of stuff and made out that everything was hunky dory and that just opened the flood gates to emails and phone calls from people that were working inside the system who were frustrated. And  those people that are working inside the system are trying to do the right thing, Pam, are frustrated, aren’t they?

PS       I understand that. Some of them let me know what’s going on and I’m very careful not to identify them.

MB      No

PS       because their jobs are at risk. But ex-staff, current staff, residents, all sorts of people. Because I’ve got something of a profile because I’ve got a Facebook page and all of that stuff, people let me know what they actually see on the ground.

MB      So, let’s round it out. $1billion, because that’s what governments do, they round things out, $1 billion say.  $900m would be federally funded.

PS       Yes, that’s right. 50% from the Commonwealth and the other 50% from the States. Queensland’s contribution is 10%, so the second biggest funder is New South Wales and then Victoria and then everybody else after that.

MB      So, the irony of this is that $100m of the $1billion is coming from Queensland and the other $900m is coming from the rest of Australia.

PS       That’s right because it’s been a huge injection into Treasury. Governments of both political colours, over this period of time, have done the same thing because it’s brought so much money into Queensland Treasury.

MB      It’s just another example too, isn’t it Pam, of governments wanting to be seen to be doing something rather than actually doing something.

PS       That’s right. Exactly right.

MB      Because if you are doing something you’re then judged on what you’ve done, as opposed to shuffling papers and moving them from one side of the desk to the other.

PS       And the evidence is clear. The infestation is now 500,000ha. That’s the evidence.

MB      So, what’s the future then? What’s the future hold?

PS       We were like the United States in 2001 and we are going to be that way. The program is going to dump everything back onto the public and they are just going to wash their hands. They’re already doing that. There’s no containment. They tell people that they have to be responsible for not moving fire ants off their property. They stopped doing surveillance. It’s the public that does ad hoc inspections and reporting suspicious nests. So, they’re doing that. And they’re now giving property owners the right to treat their own property – at their own expense. If people don’t know how to do it properly they can get themselves stung. Do they sue the government for doing their work? Or if they are careless they can actually make them spread. And if people aren’t being funded to do that, they are just going to use all the crazy methods on the internet that are likely to do more harm than good. So, they are successively dumping all the elements of the program back onto the public. And that’s where we’re going to end up.

MB      Look, it’s a story I know that you’ve been on for so many years. It must frustrate the bejeezus out of you. To think that you are almost crying into the wind. Potentially, if we can get the word out to there to the other States ‘Hang on a minute people, do you realise what you’re funding here in Queensland?’

PS       That’s exactly right. The media is starting to pick up on it and I’m very pleased about that and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to talk to you Mark.

MB      I’m grateful to you for chatting with us Pam. Thanks for your time.

PS       Thank you very much.

MB      Dr Pam Swepson, there. Can you believe that?  I know we’ve spoken about this in the past and there’s been little bits of rumblings left, right and centre, but a billion dollars has been spent and $900m comes from other States. Imagine in New South Wales and Victoria if they knew what they were giving their money to and how incompetent we were in dealing with it. I mean it’s just another example, is it not, of governments not having a clue. Those that are elected, those that are put in power, not having a clue about how to put one foot in front of another.