Writings: Fire ant infestation in SEQ up 55% in 4 years. Cost $600m. Fire ant program Chair wants more money. Fact check her interview with Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane 30th June 2021.

Now showing category: Writings

Dr Wendy Craik was appointed Chair of the Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in July 2017.  According to the program’s Governance Plan, the Steering Committee is responsible for:

  • providing leadership and guidance to the program’s operational team and providing technical advice.
  • approving annual work plans.
  • approving the budget and monitoring expenditure against the budget.
  • preparing national communications, and
  • reporting to the National Biosecurity Committee and the Agriculture Senior Officials Committee.

She spoke to Steve Austin, ABC radio Brisbane on 30th June 2021.

Steve Austin asked, ‘How is the fire ant eradication program going?

 Dr Craik said ‘Over the last four years we’ve delivered eradication treatment to about 300,000ha up to four times…and so far, we’ve only found fire ant nests on less than 2% of the sites we’ve surveyed, so that’s an encouraging record of our progress.

Fact check: Dr Craik reports activities not results. The 2019 audit of the program, like the 2013 audit, criticises the Steering Committee for never setting any outcome focussed performance indictors to assess the program’s performance in eradicating fire ants.

Steve Austin asked: A few weeks ago the Queensland government added ten new suburbs to the Biosecurity Zone. Why?

Dr Craik said ‘Because we wanted to stop the ants spreading…. to stop human-assisted movement – in other words, people carrying things that have fire ants in them from one area to another.’  

Fact check: The 2019 auditor said controlling the spread of fire ants was a central and essential element of the eradication program and the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 provides for regulations and penalty infringement notices for non-compliance.

 The auditor said the program:

  • did not know how many high-risk enterprises operated within the program’s 600,000ha operational area,
  • conducted only 912 compliance checks on the transport of fire ant carriers outside the operational area in 2018-19, at least up on the 534 conducted in 2017-18.
  • had not resolved 30% of non-compliant cases within a month,
  • had an unacceptable attitude that most non-compliance was minor,
  • had not prosecuted any offender and
  • had only twelve compliance officers to conduct compliance checks.

The auditor also noted that the program’s intention to require property owners to treat their own properties does not save costs, just transfers them.

Steve Austin also asked, ‘Does that include the suburb where the fire ant office is – where nests are found just down the road?’

Dr Craik said,I can’t answer that, Steve. I’m not dealing with the operational stuff day to day. I’m chairing the Steering Committee. That’s a bit out of the area I look after. You’d need to go back to the program on that one.’

Fact check: The Steering Committee’s primary responsibility is to provide leadership and guidance to the program’s operational team and provide technical advice.

Steve Austin asked: Is there any evidence that new houses are simply being built on fire nests or infestations?

Dr Craik said ‘We get a lot of reports of fire ants in areas that are under development. It’s not really surprising. Fire ants are actually attracted to recently disturbed sites. So, we’ve been working closely with the development industry to encourage them to report fire ants and to treat fire ants to stop the spread. They are legally required to do that.

Fact Check: The major cause of fire ant spread is human-assisted movement. The 2019 audit was critical of the failure of the program to implement the regulations of the Biosecurity Act 2014 to prevent the movement of fire ant infested materials.

Steve Austin said ‘204 square kilometres has been added to the Queensland Biosecurity Zone. That doesn’t sound like success to me. It sounds like it’s expanding all the time.  The original infestation was only 40,000ha. It’s now just under 650,000ha. Isn’t that a definition of failure?

Dr Craik replied, ‘We have the controls in place to stop the fire ant spreading.’

Fact Check: The 2019 audit said they don’t.

Dr Craik said: ‘There’s absolutely no doubt that since the fire ants first came to Queensland in the early 2000s, the infestation has spread…..We’ve been working on an area that’s about the size of the ACT, over 600,000ha, but…we’ve obviously learned a lot in the last three or four years and we adapt the program.  It’s a very large eradication program by anyone’s standards. And yes, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, to eradicate a little beast that’s 4-6mm big…but there are promising signs.’

Fact check: When fire ants were detected in south-east Queensland in 2001, experts estimated the infestation was up to a decade old. Scientific advice in 2001 was it was too late to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation and recommended tightly containing the infestation –  putting a boundary around it, inspecting any fire ant carriers coming out of it and repeatedly baiting the whole infestation by air to suppress the infestation.  There is not a scrap of scientific evidence that it was ever feasible to eradicate an entrenched infestation. It does not appear that Dr Craik has learned that yet.

Dr Craik said, ‘If nobody had done anything about the ants on the basis of the speed that they spread in the United States, they’d be as far north as Bowen, they’d be as far west as Longreach and they’d be down here to Canberra.’

Fact check: Research in Texas in the USA, with a similar climate and fire ant infestation to south-east Queensland, shows fire ants there spread at a rate of 13.4% each year.  In 2017-18, the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland increased by 21%.  In the last four years, with Dr Craik as Chair of the program’s Steering Committee, the infestation has increased from around 400,000ha to close to 650,000ha, that’s about a 55% increase.

Fact check: Five scientific reviews of the program, four audits of the program and the Queensland Audit Office all say the program does not collected reliable and consistent performance data to support any claims of progress. The program’s own Risk Management Committee says the program’s lack of data is its greatest threat.  Dr Craik has no data to support any claims the program has contained the spread of fire ants. The data shows it is spreading.

Steve Austin said, ‘No one I know is suggesting we don’t do anything. What is being suggested is that we deliberately change our strategy…..going from containment, the area is still expanding, we should go to suppression which will mean there’s a limit to what dirt, soil and plants can actually be transferred out of certain areas. Why don’t you favour suppression rather than the very expensive containment policy currently in place?

Dr Craik said, “We do actually do some suppression and the reason we have Biosecurity Zones is to stop people moving the ants out of the areas they are in so, we are doing that…..

We’re actually trying to do is actually get rid of the thing. We have… successfully eradicated a number of previous infestations. …..yes, this is a new challenge. Nobody’s done it before but we believe it can be done. The scientific advice that we got at the beginning of the program (Magee review of 2016) suggests that it could be done.

Fact checks:

  • The 2019 audit of the program said the program is not stopping people moving fire ants out of an area.
  • The program has no data to support any claims it has eradicated any areas of infestation. The 2004 scientific review told the program to develop a Proof of Freedom protocol, detailing the area’s treatment and surveillance history to support any claims of eradication. It never did.
  • There is no scientific evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation – including the Magee review of 2016. The Magee review could not address its terms of reference – assess the program’s eradication strategy to determine if the program should continue with an eradication strategy or revert to a containment strategy – because of the program’s lack of data. The reviewers said they could not recommend an optimal strategy, only suggest doing more of the same. The Magee review contradicted the 2002 scientific review which said if the ants were not eradicated by 2004, the program should revert to one of containment and the 2010 scientific review which said the program’s current surveillance and treatment methods could not eradicate fire ants and recommended the program revert to one of containment and suppression.

Steve Austin said. ‘So its been very expensive. How many multi-millions of dollars have been spent on the program since it started in 2001? Do you know?

Dr Craik said ‘I couldn’t tell you since 2001. We started in 2017…. by the end of this financial year today, we will have spent in the order of $200m (of the) $411m) allocated to this program….. One of the things we’ve come to realise is that funding that’s been set aside for this decade of eradication won’t be sufficient to do the job as we proposed and that’s part of the reason for having a review.’

Fact Check: The Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Craik is responsible for ‘approving the budget and monitoring expenditure against the budget.’ Between 2001 and 2016  the program had spent approximately $400m of public money. In 2017 it was allocated another $411.4m over ten years. In 2017-18 the program blew the budget blew out by $36.5m.

Fact Check. Blaming the program’s poor performance on not enough money, rather than incompetent management started in 2006.  With fire ants reinfesting treated areas and spreading, the Director at the time blamed a shrinking budget. The scientific review team blamed operational decisions.

The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review in 2015 said the program was not able to mount credible cases for on-going funding because it does not collect performance data and prioritises high cost responses with variable rates of return over low cost activities, like surveillance that have a higher rate of return.

Steve Austin asked,Are you thoroughly satisfied that you are receiving accurate reports or accurate data from Queensland about the success or otherwise of the program here?

Dr Craik said, ‘Yes, we are satisfied. We have absolutely no reason to question the data that we’ve been given to date….. And we have a Scientific Advisory Group which looks at it….We ask them to review the methods that we’re using in the program, to give their advice to see if they’re scientifically robust.

Fact check: The program has never collected reliable and consistent performance data, a major threat to the program according to its own Risk Management Committee.

CSIRO’s review of the program’s science in December 2020 said program’s seven scientific principles were a mish-mash of poorly referenced biological details and management actions which failed to respond to a major change in the fire ant population in south-east Queensland.

The Steering Committee is prepared to accept reports that are not supported by reliable data, do not report against specific, measurable performance indicators and do not provide trend analysis or robust cost-benefit analyses. Without clear and accurate data, the Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Craik, cannot prove the worth of the program and cannot demonstrate the proper governance of the use of a lot of public money.

Steve Austin said ‘In December last year…Minister for Agriculture Mark Furner and head of the program Malcolm Letts….. said they’re implementing a three year strategy to address…key issues identified in the review of the program …the Wonder review (Dec 2019)… (which was)  signed off by your independent Steering Committee.

Dr Craik said, ‘Bernie Wonder made 37 recommendations to the program…I think about 25-30 of the recommendations are implemented…now, we’ve just initiated, we have to do this…every two years…another independent review of the program.

Fact check:  The audit of the program, conducted by Mr Wonder in 2019 was scathing of the Steering Committee own performance. He said  the Steering Committee needed to:

  • Separate itself from program management and start acting like a Board of Management and respond to long standing issues.
  • Manage a budget shortfall of $36.5m.
  • Develop a set of out-come focussed performance indictors to inform funders and the public of the program’s progress in eradicating fire ants.
  • Impose costs on the movement of fire ant carriers outside the operational area and the creation of fire ant habitat.
  • Consider the cost implications if remote sensing technology does not reduce the treatment area, if reduced treatments do not kill fire ants and the risks of allowing the public to treat fire ant nests.
  • Consider the program’s strategy as it moves eastward into peri-urban and urban landscapes.
  • Ensure the program has information technology to support management decision making.
  • Improve operations on the ground by having Standard Operating Procedures that support effective treatment and surveillance, timely plans, contract staff remuneration linked to performance, procurement protocols adhered to, a contract register and contract conditions adhered to.
  • And, most significantly, improve its own performance by:
    • approving plans in a timely manner.
    • meeting frequently enough to address significant issues.
    • having the expertise balance to address significant issues.
    • reporting to the funders and the public in a timely manner, and
    • initiating a review of the future of the program if the risks become sufficiently problematic that the program can no longer achieve its objectives.

The Steering Committee’s response to the reviewer’s recommendations were less than inspiring. They intend to approve, implement, review, determine, consider, investigate, engage, re-work, report, revise and assess those recommendations.

Perhaps anticipating this response from the Steering Committee, the reviewer specifically recommended his recommendations be implemented by June 2021. They haven’t been.

Dr Craik said ‘We’re getting the program reviewed…. (to see) it’s got rigour, it’s got integrity and is being done in the way it is meant to be done (and) getting a cost benefit analysis done…That’s going to be considered by all the jurisdictions who are funding this program ..It’s not only Queensland …the Commonwealth …and other States and Territories too because they don’t want fire ants in their backyard either…We believe it will cost more than the amount already allocated …it’s a matter of whether the governments of Australia believe that’s a worthwhile exercise.’

Fact Check:

  • In 2001, the Commonwealth and all States and Territories agreed to fund a five year $123.4m National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to eradicate a 40,000ha infestation.
  • By 2016 the infestation had blown out to 400,000h and the program had cost $400m.
  • In 2021, the infestation now covers close to 650,000ha and the program has cost $600m since 2001.
  • In 2021, Dr Craik wants more money to do more of the same.

Dr Craik, Chair of the Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication, is responsible for an expanding fire ant infestation that puts public safety at risk and wastes public money. She needs to be held to account.