Science based? Commonwealth Department of Agriculture Water and Environment: The program is science driven: Fact check: Not a scrap of scientific evidence it was feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched fire ant infestation detected in 2001. Advise was to contain and suppress. Fact check: CSIRO says the program’s scientific principles are a mish-mash of poorly referenced biological details and management actions. Who’s responsible? Dept of Agriculture: The program is run by an independent steering committee chaired by Dr Wendy Craik. Fact check: Scathing assessments by independent auditors of the performance of both the Steering Committee managed by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment from 2001-2016 and current steering committee from 2017. How does it work? Dept of Agriculture: Treatment moving from west to east. Eradication treatment and suppression treatment. Containment at the edge. Fact check: No scientific basis for west to east strategy. Eradication baiting in the west is patchy and at less than recommended rate. Injections of insecticide into nests in the east to suppress them more likely to cause them to spread. Fire ants spread beyond the bounds of the program every year. What progress? Dept of Agriculture: We’ve been making progress…some positive signs…stats that we’ve keep it to a defined area. Fact check: Five independent scientific reviews and the Queensland Audit Office say the program has never collected any reliable and consistent performance data to support any claims of making progress or eradicating any areas of infestation. Who pays? Dept of Agriculture: Program funded by the Commonwealth and other States who ensure the program is meeting milestones. Fact check: The Queensland government contributes 10% of the funding but makes 100% of the decisions on how it is spent. Fact check: Oversight committees accept reports from Queensland that do not report against milestones. The longer the program goes on, the more money goes into Queensland Treasury. What will happen next? Dept Agriculture: Can’t comment right now. The program is enormous. Gives us pause for thought. Going through a review. What other strategies, what funding commitment, what long term strategy? Fact check: The $411m Ten Year Eradication Program 2017-27 WAS a long term strategy to give Proof of Freedom by 2027. The 2017-27 plan has failed after four years, as did the 2001-16 plan. Where are we now? Fact check: • Fire ants are spreading out of control. • The program is dumping the costs and risks of treatment, surveillance and containment onto the public. • The New South Wales and Victorian governments, the biggest funders after the Commonwealth, no longer accept Queensland accredited potted plants into their markets. • In 2001, US experts said if eradication and containment fail the only option is Self-Management – individuals and businesses funding their own control measures. What should happen next? A Royal Commission to hold all oversight committees of the program to account, from 2001 to now, for the waste of over $600m of public money and an out of control fire ant infestation that has spread from 40,000ha in 2002 to 650,000ha and continues to spread.
On 27th May 2021 Senator Malcolm Roberts asked the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee questions about how the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is affecting farmers in the Brisbane Valley.
Responses came from the Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment Mr Andrew Metcalfe, Deputy Secretary Mr Andrew Tongue and senior officer of the Department and Commonwealth representative on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee, Ms Jo Laduzko.
Is it science based?
Mr Tongue: It is a science-driven program…we’re drawing on the best possible science we can.
Senator Roberts: when people use the word ‘science’ around here…it’s usually opinion and not science.
Mr Tongue: The program is run by an independent committee chaired by Wendy Craik who is a very distinguished authority in natural resource management matters.
Fact check: The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee was established as a separate governance body in 2017 to provide strategic oversight and clear accountability and transparency. It is responsible for providing leadership, managing risks, making expenditure decisions, monitoring the progress of the program and reporting to the Agriculture Senior Officials Committee. (Governance Plan 2017)
Fact check: The independent Efficiency and Effectiveness Audit of 2019 gave a scathing assessment of the performance of the Steering Committee, saying it was too close to the program and it needed to act like a Board of Management. It needed to manage the budget shortfall, develop outcome focussed performance indicators, improve operations on the ground by having Standard Operating Procedures and consider if program risks outweigh any chance of success. The review said the Steering Committee needed to improve its own performance by approving plans in a timely manner, meeting frequently enough, having the appropriate expertise and reporting to funders and the public in a timely manner.
What does it cost?
Senator Roberts: How much is it costing Australia in funding the fight against spread and ultimate eradication of fire ants?
Ms Laduzko: $411.4m. Roughly speaking $41m per annum.
Budget 2001-2016 approximately $400m
Budget 2017-18: $37.5m
Budget 2018-19: $52.9m
Budget 2019-20 $66.5m
Budget 2020-21 no quarterly reports published to date.
Senator Roberts: On what basis are federal monies provided to States to assist in these programs. (Is it) a money spinner? Could it be manipulated …to prolong it?
Mr Tongue: We have a partnership agreement with the Queensland government that sets out milestones that need to be met in order for us to provide funding to a schedule. The Commonwealth is contributing 50%. All the jurisdictions involved, other than Queensland, have a huge interest in ensuring that the program is running well because they’re all on the hook to fund it. So it would be very difficult for Queensland to manipulate a circumstance with the gaze of all the other jurisdictions upon it, as well as the community where…they are turning this into some sort of money spinner.
Fact check: In 2001, the Commonwealth government agreed to fund an eradication program but not a containment and suppression program as scientists advised. So long as Queensland keeps reporting, without a scrap of evidence, it is eradicating fire ants, money keep pouring into Queensland Treasury. Queensland contributes just 10% of the program funding but make 100% of the decisions on how it is spent – mostly on jobs creation programs.
They can do this because of appalling governance of the program. In 2013, Deloitte criticised the previous oversight committee managed by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment for not approving performance indicators of key aspects of the program, having no mechanism for analysing return on investment and accepting program reports that were no more than ‘narratives’ that did not explain the variance between what was planned and what was delivered. Deloitte questioned the ability of the committee to demonstrate due care of the use of public money.
In 2019, the Efficiency and Effectiveness Audit was just as scathing in its assessment of the current Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Craik.
Evidence of its progress?
Senator Roberts: How successful is the management and eradication programme?
Ms Laduzko: We’ve been learning a lot…a very large scale eradication…we’ve been making progress…. trialling different ways of killing ants…some positive signs. Whether it’s sufficiently funded are matters for current discussion.
Senator Roberts: So you haven’t got any concrete measures other than that, you’ve been making progress…..because that’s an awful lot of money.
Ms Laduzko: Assessing progress is an interesting question… we go through cycles of eradication and surveillance … to see how effective those measures have been….I would prefer to source that specific information from the … program-leading Queensland government. …..I think there’s some stats that suggest if we’d done nothing… it would already have largely covered the entirety of Australia by now… we have managed to keep it to a defined region.
Fact check: Five independent scientific reviews, four independents audits and the Queensland Audit Office have found that the program has never collected reliable and consistent performance data. The program’s Risk Management Committee said this was the program’s greatest risk. The program has no quantitative data to support any claims of progress or success.
Fact check: Program figures say the infestation expanded from 40,000ha in 2002 to 500,000ha by 2016. That’s a 17% increase each year. The rate of spread in Texas in the USA with a similar infestation, but without an eradication program, is 13.4%. Is the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program making the infestation worse?
Fact check: Biosecurity Queensland sponsored research by Drs Jonathan Keith and Daniel Spring in 2013 said the opportunity for eradication has been missed …always an infested area outside the searched and treated areas…southern and western boundaries of the invasion advanced at a steady rate…the boundary of the infestation has never been delimited.
Fact check: The independent Efficiency and Effectiveness Audit of 2019 noted the boundary of the program blew out by 78,000ha, a 21% increase, in the first year of the Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program 2017-27.
Senator Roberts: How effective are similar overseas eradication programs?
Ms Laduzko: Nowhere has anyone successfully eradicated red imported fire ants. Australia has the only successful eradication outcomes ….were on smaller incursions that we were able to contain to port environments.
Fact check: The program has no quantitative data to support that claim and no a Proof of Freedom Protocol to support them either. In 2004 the program was told to develop a Proof of Freedom Protocol that included data on a property’s history of invasions/re-invasion, treatment regime, survey history and the results on tests on surviving nests to support any claims of fire ant freedom. They never did. The program cannot prove it has eradicated ANY fire ant infestations.
Senator Roberts: So that is ominous for the (Brisbane) Valley
Ms Laduzko: It gives us pause for thought around the size of the eradication (area) and the funding commitment and what our long term strategy is.
Fact check: The $411.4m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Plan 2017-27 was funded on the basis it was a long term strategy, that would, in 2027 provide Proof of Freedom that fire ants had been eradicated from ALL treatment zones.
How does it work?
Senator Roberts: So what’s being done…on the ground?
Ms Ladzuko: It is a complex program and very large. We have zoned certain areas that are embedded in a sentiment of moving from west (through rural land) to east (urban environment) with a rolling eradication effort….and suppressing those in other areas…(and) a lot of investment into the edge to make sure it doesn’t further escape. …..You’d have to say we haven’t allowed it to become worse.
Fact check: Significant areas of infestation are found beyond the program’s operational area every year.
Fact check: ‘Eradication treatment’ and ‘suppression treatment’ are meaningless terms. ‘Eradication treatment’ means broadcasting bait over just parts of the infested area in the west, at less than the recommended rate of three treatments each year for three years. It is throwing good bait and good money after bad. ‘Suppression treatment’ means injecting insecticide directly into fire ant nests. There is no evidence the practise does anything more than cause the nests to split and spread.
What happens next? They don’t know.
Senator Roberts: What else needs to be done? Are there enough resources to achieve eradication?
Ms Ludzuko: That’s an open question…the scale of the response is enormous, and it often comes down to funding and commitment of participants. It’s not something I’d like to comment on right now Senator. We’re going through a bit of a review…to what other strategies we can adopt…. technology?….baits?…a few things like that… a question you might like to pose …next session…when we’ve done…our own efficiency review.
Mr Tongue: We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done anywhere else. It is a uniquely adapted little ant…challenges in urban areas…cycles of wet and dry … can frustrate efforts…. Under constant review …we’re looking at it at the moment and government will need to make a decision.
Fact check: The nature of the ant, the climate and geography of south east Queensland, what US experts described as ‘fire ant heaven’ and the extent of the infestation was the reason local experts said in 2001 it was too late to eradicate them.
Mr Metcalfe: Not with a view to stopping it, but with a view of how we can do it better?
Mr Tongue. Can we do it better? If we up the cash burn rate, would we go faster? If we slowed the cash burn rate, will be do better? Some of those questions, you know. What is the right modality to get rid of it?
Ms Laduzo: It gets to a point where in all eradication (efforts) …you have to make a concluded position about whether you think eradication remains feasible and cost effective. At the moment, we are signed up to an eradication program.
Fact check: There has never been any evidence that an eradication program was technically feasible. The enormously expensive folly to chase the last ant to eradicate it has come at the expense of a cheaper and likely more effective tight containment and suppression program.
Where are we now?
What happens next?
In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said that if we neither eradicated the fire ant infestation, nor contained its spread, the only option left was ‘Facilitated management’ as happens in Texas in the US now. Individuals and businesses fund their own fire ant control methods with the support of government funded research and advice. In Australia it would just be ‘Self Management’ because the science behind the program, according to CSIRO, is a poor.
What should happen next? A Royal Commission
What SHOULD happen next is a Royal Commission to hold the Commonwealth oversight committee of the program from 2001 to 2016 and the current Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, to account for the waste of over $600m of public money and an out of control fire ant infestation that has spread from 40,000ha in 2002 to 650,000ha.
2nd June 2021