Writings: The Crime and Misconduct Commission is, in part, responsible for Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Fiasco.

As fire ants continue to spread through south-east Queensland and threaten the entire country, the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (2001-2014), must, in part, bear some responsibility.

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The CMC came into existence in 2001 and went out in a blaze of ignominious disgrace in 2014 when it was discovered the agency responsible for ensuring the integrity of others had, in 2007, illegally destroyed thousands of documents and made sensitive documents from the Fitzgerald inquiry available to the public.  An independent review of the agency in 2013 was scathing.

Unaware of the CMC’s level of competence, but with evidence the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was mis-reporting the progress of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to the national Ministerial Council, I wrote to the CMC on 26th March 2003. I said, ‘I wish to make a public interest disclosure, under S 28 of the Whistleblowers Protection Act 1994, that the public, the Parliament, the Premier, the Governor and the Commonwealth and other States and Territories are being misled by reports that over-state the success of the program by omitting to report serious issues that continue to threaten the success of the program.’ 

I supported my disclosure with evidence I compiled by comparing the reports operational managers submitted to the Program Director, with what he reported to the department’s Steering Committee, chaired by the Deputy Director-General, with what the department reported to the national Ministerial Council which made funding decisions about the program. I identified six significant issues, each one threatening the program, the department had not reported to Ministerial Council.  To investigate my disclosure, all the CMC had to do, was to check if any of those six issues was ever reported to the Ministerial Council. They never did.  

It was crucial the CMC acted ‘expeditiously’, as required by the Crime and Misconduct Act 2001. It didn’t.  When I made my disclosure in March 2003, the five-year, $123.4m program had been in operation for about a year and a half. The CMC did not finalise its investigation of my disclosure until 17th November 2005, two years and eight months after I made my disclosure, and over four years since the program had commenced. 

The CMC Chairperson’s final letter to me said, ‘Having regard to the information to hand I am not satisfied that it discloses evidence capable of supporting the view that the relevant officers of the department reported (the progress of the fire ant program) in a manner that was other than honest or impartial or as required by the funding bodies. Accordingly, the CMC does not intend to take any further action with respect to your public interest disclosure of possible official misconduct with respect to alleged improper reporting.’

He then went to great lengths to justify this unjustifiable decision.

He did so, first, by changing the terms of my disclosure to ‘You originally alleged official misconduct on the part of the Director of the Fire Ant Control Centre with respect to the National Fire Ant Eradication Program.’  It appeared the Chairperson of the CMC did not understand reporting accountabilities in the Queensland Public Service. A Program Director is not responsible for reporting to Ministerial Councils: that is the responsibility of the Minister, the Director-General or the Deputy-Director General.

He then said the program reports the department posted on its website was evidence ‘that at all relevant times the relevant representatives of the Commonwealth, State and Territories were aware of the issues that gave rise to your concerns about the program.’   None of the six issues I identified as threatening the program ever appeared in those reports.

He then added that, ‘In the light of the absence of any evidence that the funding bodies raised concerns with respect to the reports emanating from the Fire Ant Control Centre to the department’s Fire Ant Steering Committee…. would tend to indicate satisfaction with the reports provided.’  The Chairperson of the CMC expected Ministerial Council members to be aware of issues not reported to them. 

He then questioned my ability to produce reports to ‘high level entities such as the National Red Imported Fire Ant Consultative Committee, the Primary Industries Standing Committee, the Primary Industries Ministerial Council and the Natural Resource Ministerial Council.’ He said, ‘In your role at the Fire Ant Control Centre, you were not aware of what reporting requirements the relevant ministerial councils imposed with respect to the preparation of reports in relation to the efficacy of the program against agreed milestones……It is apparent that in determining whether or not funding should continue to be allocated to the Program, the relevant funding bodies would have required sufficient information to enable a broad and wide ranging general assessment of progress according to the agreed milestones.’

Having attended almost all the meetings of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Consultative Committee and taken the minutes at some, I was very aware of the program’s reporting requirements and the milestones Ministerial Council had imposed.  And they were very specific: the program’s ability to determine the extent of the infestation, evidence of the treatment effectiveness, evidence of re-infestations, having an effective containment program and a functioning information system.

I replied. I said, ‘Without viewing the Department’s reports to those authorities to assess whether those issues were raised, the CMC has no basis to claim the Department is NOT mis-reporting on those specific issues to the public, the Parliament, the Premier, the Governor and the Commonwealth and other States and Territories.’

I added, ‘It is now far too late to save the eradication program. Fire ants are spreading and re-infestations continue to occur. This is a monumental ecological and economic disaster for Queensland and the rest of Australia. The program is failing because the issues that I raised have not been addressed. Despite your protestations, the CMC must bear SOME responsibility for this situation because the authorities who CAN act to change the program have not been able to do so until the CMC completed its investigation which has taken over two and a half years.’

I believe the CMC was in breach of the S 34 Crime and Misconduct Act 2001 which states that the overriding principle for the CMC performing its misconduct functions is the public interest and promoting public confidence.  The public interest was the eradication or control of fire ants. I believe the CMC should be held to account.

And while the CMC dragged out its investigation of my disclosure, the Queensland government continued to attract significant funding from the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, based on program reports that continued to over-state its success and not report serious issues threatening it. I believe this is a case for a Federal Integrity Agency to investigate.

14th November 2022