Steve Austin, ABC Radio Brisbane, said ‘We’ve been following the fire ant debacle in this State for quite some time.’ Interview with Pam Swepson 18th May 2021.
Steve Austin We’ve learned that New South Wales and Victoria are NOT accepting potted plants from Brisbane nurseries, even ones that have got full fire ant clean accreditation programs or certificates. Now, you know we’ve been following the fire ant debacle in this State for quite some time. Whenever you interview the department, they say everything’s going great. But Pam Swepson is a former fire ant program policy officer who’s become a whistleblower over the mis-management of the program. She used to work deep within the department some years ago. Pam Swepson, what can you tell me – that New South Wales and Victoria are no longer accepting potted plants from Brisbane nurseries even if they have fire ant accreditation or fire ant certificates saying there’s no fire ants in the soil?
Pam Swepson That’s correct Steve.
SA What does that mean?
PS The story is that CSIRO reviewed the program last year and came up with a report. They were scathing of Biosecurity Queensland’s scientific principles and movement controls. In response to that scathing assessment of Biosecurity Queensland’s failed movement controls of fire ants in Queensland, both New South Wales and Victoria are saying, ‘We won’t accept Queensland accreditation of potted plants coming out of the Biosecurity Zone,’ which covers more than Brisbane. It covers from Moreton Bay down to the Gold Coast and out to the Lockyer Valley. So, it’s a huge area.
SA So what impact will this have on Brisbane nurseries, do you think. I realise you’re not a nursery owner but what impact will it have?
PS The costs go back onto them. Now my understanding Steve, is that nursery operators pay Biosecurity Queensland for that accreditation – It’s called an Interstate Certification Assurance ICA-40 Property Freedom of Plants for Red Imported Fire Ant. New South Wales and Victoria are no longer accepting that. They’re saying that nursery owners need to go through processes of additional accreditations and that additional accreditation may require potted plants, certainly Victoria is saying, that those potted plants should also be chemically treated before they leave the State. All of those costs, the cost of the certification and the chemical treatments go back onto nursery operators. That can be an additional cost that will put some small producers out of business. Queensland is funded to control the movement of fire ants…
SA by the Commonwealth
PS out of the State for the sake of the entire country. This is a national program and they are funded to do that.
SA So, we’re funded by the Commonwealth, aren’t we, Pam Swepson. They provide the funds.
PS 50% comes from the Commonwealth, but interestingly, the other two big funders are New South Wales and Victoria. If they’re losing confidence in Queensland’s ability to control the movement fire ants – the question I have is – how long will New South Wales and Victoria continue to put money into this program which is failing?
SA Both the New South Wales and Victorian government restrictions apply to any potted plant coming from properties within 5km of a confirmed fire ant nest, in other words, Biosecurity Queensland’s Interstate Plant Quarantine Zone (Red Imported Fire Ant).
PS That’s correct.
SA And basically now, what this means is, the other States don’t trust our system or our fire ant eradication authorities or claims.
PS That’s correct and they’ve had two reviews. The CSIRO review that came out in December last year was highly critical of it and the independent audit of the program in 2019 was also highly critical of it. Queensland’s failure to use the Regulations, failure to prosecute people, not enough compliance staff, they don’t do compliance checks. CSIRO said Queensland’s fire ant movement controls are not consistent with its regulations, there is a worrying non-compliance with the regulation in Queensland, there’s no evidence the biosecurity control measures like disturbing stockpiles of soil and mulch etc work, and the program’s got no data on the density or the location of the fire ants within the Biosecurity Zone. That’s the criticism of the movement controls by CSIRO and in response to that New South Wales and Victoria are saying ‘We don’t trust you.’
SA Pam Swepson is a former fire ant program policy officer here in Queensland. She became a whistleblower over her concerns about the management of the program. How long has the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program been in operation, now Pam Swepson?
PS TWENTY YEARS
SA And how much money has been spent so far over twenty years trying to eradicate fire ants?
PS My guess-timate is $600m.
SA Some years ago you went to the Crime and Corruption Commission seeking a public interest disclosure protection for raising concerns about that and was rejected by the triple C. What was the basis of your concerns back then, can you recall?
PS My concern was that the program was over-stating the success of the program and not reporting the serious issues affecting the program. I know that those reports were mis-leading because I was drafting them. I went to the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) and said we’re not telling the Commonwealth and the other States who were paying for this the truth about the program. They found no substance to my complaint, so the mis-reporting has continued, Steve. You will interview people from the program, and they will tell you all is well, which is not the case.
SA Which is what they’ve told me in the past. So now that this CSIRO study has resulted in New South Wales and Victoria not accepting potted plants from Brisbane nurseries, do you again feel vindicated, Pam Swepson, about your concerns?
PS I’d say I’ve been feeling vindicated for a long time, but that hasn’t changed the situation for Queensland or Australia. It’s diabolical because this thing is out of control! We’ve got an infestation that’s gone from something like 40,000ha to 600,000ha. It’s out of control. So, what’s going to happen if this program falls apart? If New South Wales and Victoria stop funding it and the Commonwealth stops funding it, what happens? We’re in a dreadful, dreadful mess that we didn’t need to be in. So, it’s a shocking, shocking outcome.
SA I understand. Pam Swepson, thanks for your time. That was Pam Swepson who’s a former fire ant program policy officer just highlighting that New South Wales and Victorian governments have just announced they are no longer accepting potted plants from Brisbane nurseries. That’s how concerned they are about the fire ant program here in Queensland.