Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane, weary of National Fire Ant Eradication Program executives unavailable for interview, interview with program whistle-blower Pam Swepson, 18th June 2021.
Steve Austin After the 5 o’clock news – is Queensland losing the war against fire ants? Has it lost the war against fire ants? New nests are appearing everywhere. Other States are taking action about importing bought plants. We’ll find out more after the news.
Is Queensland losing or have we already lost the war against fire ants? I’ll explore that in a moment with someone who has both worked on the program and been a whistle-blower and despite the fact that her advice has been ignored by both the Crime and Corruption Commission and the department responsible for fighting them, her observations keep coming true. That’s in just a moment.
Is Queensland losing the war against fire ants? The fight to eradicate fire ants started in September 2001. Can you believe it. It’s cost the tax-payers hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, in fact, the figure must be extraordinary right now. Queensland is still trying to eradicate, and that is the State government’s strategy, eradication, the pest, two decades, twenty years after they were first discovered at the Port of Brisbane and Richlands. According to whistle-blowers now, fire ants are being found outside the eradication zone. Now two weeks ago the Queensland government added ten new suburbs to the fire ant biosecurity areas, meaning the ants are now being found in regions not previously infested. So have we lost the battle?
Well, we have, once again requested an interview with National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. Once again, unfortunately the people responsible are not available for interview. No one from the program is available to speak this afternoon.
So, let’s go to Pam Swepson. Pam Swepson is a former fire ant program policy officer. She became a whistle-blower over what she saw as the mismanagement of the program, did the lawful thing and went to the Crime and Corruption Commission. They didn’t find in support of her whistleblowing action. But it’s funny how history goes, her observations have continued to come true after she made her original claims.
Pam Swepson, welcome back onto the program.
PS Thank you very much Steve.
SA Is it true that fire ants have been found close to the very front door of the office of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program?
PS That’s true and the area of Berrinba in Logan has been inside the fire ant program operational area since 2001. So it’s a long term infestation which continues to be heavily infested.
SA Just remind us of what the fire ant is and why the taxpayer has been paying for two decades to eradicate this ant.
PS It’s one of the world’s most serious invasive pests. They can kill people, they’re very aggressive, they will attack animals, children. They make agriculture very difficult. Sporting facilities get infested. We’ve had school playgrounds get infested. They can be very dangerous. If people get stung, they get stung repeatedly, long periods of time of burning and stinging and stings. If you’re allergic to the toxin you can go into anaphylaxis. They are highly aggressive.
You talked about the fact there’s been fire ants found outside the operational area this year. Steve, there’s been significant detections of fire ant infestations outside the boundaries of the program EVERY year. EVERY year. This is nothing new. This is just the pattern that’s been happening for twenty years.
SA Do you feel vindicated at all because I recall a number of years back you went to the Crime and Corruption Commission claiming your lawful right at the time to make a public interest disclosure, as they’re known. Went to the triple C and made a number of allegations and the triple C rejected your disclosure claims. But I seem to recall that pretty much everything you’ve said has turned out to be accurate.
PS My disclosure was, Steve, that the program was mis-reporting to the Commonwealth and the other States who are paying for this program, overstating the success of the program and not reporting serious issues. Because if Queensland keeps saying the program is working, a lot of money comes into Queensland. And I knew those reports were misleading because I was drafting them. Now the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) found that there was no substance to my complaint – that the program wasn’t mis-reporting the program, and so nothing changed. As I think I said to you last time, because the CMC didn’t stop the mis-reporting, the mis-reporting has continued. So, it’s possible you don’t have any people from the program on this afternoon because they will just tell you more of the mis-leading stories.
So, this story that this is unusual, that there’s been infestations found outside the area of the operations is NOT unusual. It’s been happening for twenty years. The infestation has gone from 40,000ha in about 2002 to around 650,000ha, or probably more now, with these other areas added to the size of the program. I mean there was an audit done in 2019, and the auditor was shocked that between 2017 and 2018, at the beginning of this new program, 78,000ha were added in a year.
And their own research, that they commissioned, showed that the ants continue to spread, unabated every year irrespective of what the program is doing.
SA Alright. My guest is Pam Swepson. We’re talking fire ants. Two weeks ago the State government added ten new suburbs to the fire ant biosecurity zones. Why would they do that, Pam Swepson, what does that mean?
PS It just means that fire ants are out of control. They have always been out of control, so they’re just alerting people in those new suburbs that they now have to take responsibility for protecting themselves from fire ants, because they’re now in a biosecurity zone. But the program is basically walking away from doing anything about it. It’s just alerting people in those areas that they have a problem on their doorstep that they now have to manage.
SA So it’s now spread to both the Scenic Rim and Somerset Regional Council Areas.
PS Oh, it’s been in those regions for some time.
SA But ten new suburbs have been added in those areas, right?
PS Yes. I mean, we’ve had them on the Sunshine Coast, the Moreton region, all of the cities – Brisbane, Logan, Redlands, Ipswich – they’re all infested. Half the Gold Coast is infested, and significantly into the Lockyer Valley, Somerset and Scenic Rim.
SA What’s the aim the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program?
PS Do you want to know what I really think?
PS It’s just about putting a lot of money into Queensland Treasury.
SA OK, what’s it supposed to be doing according to its title?
PS Its title is to eradicate. Now there’s not a scrap of scientific evidence that it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation that was found here in 2001.
SA So what should they being doing instead? Do you say?
PS The advice at the time was, they’re too entrenched, the best you can do is to define the area of the infestation, put a boundary around it, tightly contain the infestation to within that area, make sure that any truck loads or trailer loads of anything coming out are well inspected and to bait it repeatedly, ideally by helicopter to get every square inch of the place baited, to tightly contain it and suppress it. If we’d done that, it’s likely we’d have a tightly contained infestation of 40,000ha instead of this $600m folly chasing the last fire ant to eradicate it. There’s never been a chance that we be ever able to do that and while we’ve been doing that, it’s come at the cost of a tight containment program that could have saved us from this mess that we’ve now in.
SA So you’re saying we’re using the wrong management model, there’s a financial incentive to Queensland to use the wrong management model and while we use the wrong management model, it’s making it worse.
PS I had a consultant entomologist look at the figures Biosecurity Queensland is using, saying the spread is slower than in Texas, but by those figures, the spread in Texas, which has similar sort of geography and similar sort of infestation, they’re spreading slower in Texas without an eradication program, than they are in Queensland with an eradication program.
SA Alright. Do you still speak with employees within the system? What have they told you are the problem areas at the moment?
PS I hear mostly from ex-staff, these days Steve, people who’ve just got sick of it and left. I hear from them after they’ve left the program because people in the program are nervous about speaking. It’s a toxic work environment, that I’m aware of. So I don’t want to make any staff feel nervous about whether they’re going to be chased down because they might have been talking to me.
So, mostly I hear from people once they’ve left the program when they feel free to speak to me.
SA I understand. So what are they telling you are the problem areas, in brief, Pam Swepson?
PS The mismanagement. The ombudsman found they’ve speeded up their response. People ring up, make a report, and it would take four weeks for the teams to get out of a property. And then they’d send one team to take a sample and come back and then they’d send another team out to do the treatment. So the Ombudsman’s found they’ve cut that down to half – only one team goes out and takes a sample and treats. But property owners will tell me one team will come and take a sample, then two teams will come and do treatment because the program management, the operations of it, is sending teams all over the place.
I mean people complain about seeing teams sitting in parks, playing ball or eating lunch, but there’s a good chance they don’t have a work sheet because they haven’t been told where to be and when because management is chaotic.
So I don’t have any criticism of staff, and the staff in their hi-vis jackets are visible, so people complain about what looks like they’re not doing their job, but the question is, what have they been told to do or what have they been allowed to do?
SA Right. So let me ask you this. There’s a state Parliamentary Committee that looks at this. I mean, what is State Parliament doing? $650m taxpayer dollars so far, and it’s got worse. It started at 40,000ha and it’s now, you think, over 650,000ha. I mean, in anyone’s language, if this is an eradication program, it’s expanding, so I’d call that a failure. So, what is State Parliament doing about this?
PS But it’s not State Parliament’s issue, Steve. This is a Commonwealth issue. This is a national issue.
SA But the State runs it, the Commonwealth just hands over the money and the State runs the program.
PS The Commonwealth is supposed to monitor it. We have an independent Steering Committee. The Commonwealth used to have the oversight committee and they gave that to another independent committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik. That’s the body that’s responsible, not State Parliament. State Parliament is just one of the Parliaments that the oversight committee reports to.
SA Well, what’s the Commonwealth Committee doing if they’re responsible for it? I mean, they must look at the millions of dollars and it’s just expanding!
PS This is the job of the Steering Committee chaired by Dr Wendy Craik. She’s the one responsible. They’re the ones that are responsible for how the money’s spent, how the program is progressing.
I think I told you Steve, about the Commonwealth oversight committee in the Department of Agriculture. The Deloitte audit of that was scathing of them. And in 2019, the audit of the program was similarly scathing of the current oversight committee – of their ability to be responsible for the use of public money and to run an effective program. So, it’s that Steering Committee, either the Commonwealth one or current one. And basically, the membership of the current committee is the same as the old one, it’s just got a different Chair.
SA I’ll speak to you again. Thank you very much for coming on once again. Pam Swepson.
PS Thank you Steve.
SA Pam Swepson, on the fire ant eradication program and the on-going failures. Now once again, I said we did ask for someone from the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to join us. Unfortunately, no-one’s available.
A spokesperson has given us a statement. It says:
“Ten new suburbs in the Scenic Rim and Somerset Regional Councils have been added to biosecurity zones for the first time. The zones are in place to stop fire ants from spreading through human assisted movement of infested material.
Fire ants could fly as far as 5km from infested areas that is why new suburbs have been added. Twenty suburbs have also been moved into Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone Two and the way you move materials that can carry fire ants from or within these suburbs may need to change.
Australia is the first country in the world to attempt eradication on this scale and without the program its estimated fire ants would have now spread north to Bowen, west to Longreach and south to Canberra.
Significant progress has been made with about 30% of the total infested area receiving broad-scale treatment and now under-going clearance surveillance. “
That’s the end of the statement from a spokesperson from the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.
Shaun from Auchenflower sent me a text saying “Steve, do you ever get statement weary? You are given so many statements from the State government or departments to read.’
Shaun, I’m glad you picked up on that. Yes, I am. We are a federally funded national broadcaster that has a chartered responsibility in times of emergency to help Australians understand what’s going on. We have tried time and time and time and time again to get responsible Ministers or department heads onto the program to explain what’s going on. Unfortunately, almost always, with the occasional exception, they say ‘no’ and that damages the public interest. But just wait. Let’s move onto another story.
20th June 2021