To keep national funding flowing into Queensland, without a scrap of performance data, Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Mark Furner, claims fire ants would be investing Canberra by now without the 22year old Fire Ant Eradication Program. Shame!
Dr Pam Swepson’s interview with ABC radio Brisbane’s Steve Austin, Wednesday 5th July 2023
Steve Austin: After the 6 o’clock news we’ll be taking a deep dive into the fire ant program and why the warnings of a decade ago have not been heeded.
SA In just a moment, fire ant program whistleblower, Pam Swepson is my guest on what resources she thinks needs to be done now to stop the invasive pest crossing the border into New South Wales. Some years ago, she was a whistleblower who went to the Crime and Corruption Commission, and you’ll hear the story of what she sees, ten or so years down the track, from going formally to express her concerns about the program.
SA Well yesterday the Auditor-General of Queensland tabled a report into how Biosecurity Queensland is handling the spread of fire ants. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. This invasive pest species is a worry in a number of countries around the world. Highly invasive, they can kill certain people and the report warned that if this invasive pest is left to spread, fire ants could cost Queensland and Australia billions: they mean billions of dollars.
If you were listening to me about a month and a half back, I spoke with one State MP Michael Crandon, the member for Coomera, who was really worried that they were in his electorate and heading south to the New South Wales border – rapidly.
Michael Crandon And the reality is now, they’re less than 15 km from the border and when you and I spoke the last time, they were more than 30km from the border. Remember these little guys can fly up to 5km at a time. But there’s three jumps and they’re at the border and then it’s open slather going forward from there. The government did not do what they needed to do on the Gold Coast. I was calling for it, as you know, for years. Calling for them to start an eradication program on the Gold Coast in my electorate because that’s where they arrived on the Gold Coast, in the State seat of Coomera. I was calling for them to do the eradication program years ago. They haven’t done it. They still haven’t done it.
SA Michael Crandon who joined me in the studio some six or so week back, I’m guessing. Forgive me for that.
Now the Auditor-General’s report yesterday called on Biosecurity Queensland to take on, and I quote ‘greater leadership in its oversight and co-ordination to reduce the impact.’ I asked the Minister for Agriculture, Industry Development, Fisheries and Minister for Rural Communities, Queensland Minister Mark Furner, what will change as a result of the Auditor-General’s report.
Mark Furner I’ve instructed the department to go through this report, the eight recommendations, and there’s always room for improvement. So I want to see what can be done to address this serious pest. But I want to make this clear, Steve, that there has been significant gains in dealing with the particular pest. Modelling demonstrates if we had not acted in terms of where we are at present, it would have infested 100 million hectares, in an arc of the country from Bowen out to Longreach and to Canberra. So next week, I’ll be engaging with my State, Territory and Commonwealth Ministers as a major issue on that agenda of the Agriculture Ministerial meeting in determining more funding for this program.
SA State Agriculture Minister Mark Furner for Queensland. I also spoke to the Shadow Agriculture Minister Tony Perrett whether he thinks the State of Queensland is getting enough support from the Commonwealth to eradicate fire ants.
Tony Perrett I understand that the Prime Minister was on the Gold Coast only just recently and acknowledged that more funding was needed and that apparently the Minister for Agriculture, Mark Furner, will be making some sort of report to the Agriculture Ministers from across the nation. But Steve I think it’s just too little, too late. And they now cover an area of almost 800,000ha, there’s a major problem. And when I read reports like Dr Pam Swepson and others where there was an opportunity many, many years ago to be able to eradicate these aggressive and invasive ants. Then, we’re losing where they are and if they get across the New South Wales border, then there’s another jurisdiction that will be dealing with them. So, the Queensland government has had the lead through Biosecurity Queensland in dealing with but report after report has been damming and when you get dozens of recommendations on how the reports have changed I’m afraid that we’re certainly not winning the battle.
SA The Shadow Minister Tony Perrett who spoke with me yesterday. Now none of this is news to my guest Dr Pam Swepson. She’s a former Fire Ant Program Policy Officer. Dr Swepson became a whistleblower some years back over the mismanagement of the program. Thanks for coming in Pam Swepson.
Pam Swepson You’re very welcome Steve.
SA Take me back through a little history lesson if you wouldn’t mind, first of all, but for those don’t understand the history, they’re ants, you think what’s the big deal. These little creatures who cares. Everyone’s got ants in their garden. Where were the fire ants first discovered here?
PS It’s likely they came in on mining equipment or farming equipment into the Port of Brisbane from places in the southern states of the United States where there is a heavy infestation and from there, they’ve ended up infesting the Port of Brisbane and a garden out at Richlands. But it’s likely those two infestations were different sorts of red imported fire ants, so it’s likely there’s been more than one incursion into Queensland that has resulted in the fire ant infestation.
SA Now when they were detected, what was the initial response?
PS The initial response was there a great flurry of activity in the department to scope the extent of the infestation and they brought out some American experts to help them understand what needs to be happening next. Those Americans said what they had seen in Queensland was as bad as anything they had seen in the United States. They guesstimated, the scientists guesstimated, by the extent of it, the infestation had been there for a decade, and their advice at the time, and also national experts were also saying the same thing, it was far too entrenched to attempt to eradicate the infestation.
SA So what were we supposed to do? What did they recommend?
PS At that time, the guesstimate was the infestation was about 40,000ha, it might have been a bit bigger than that because they hadn’t discovered the Swanbank infestation, but a relatively small area of infestation. And they were suggesting tightly containing it with tight movement controls on the boundary of that area to contain it within that area. And repeatedly baiting it to suppress the infestation, multiple times each year. And if we had done that, we might have contained the infestation within that area.
SA What was the area again, sorry? You mentioned the size?
PS 40,000ha possibly a bit bigger than that because at that stage, when they guesstimated 40,000ha they hadn’t come across the big Swanbank infestation. So, 40-50,000ha. So a relatively tight containment area. That was their recommendation, and they said if you neither eradicate or contain it, we’ll get to what the only option is let. So that was their advice at the time.
SA OK. What is the area which the fire ant has spread into now?
PS Well we don’t know because there’s no measures on that. We don’t know where the edges are. There was an estimation of about 80,000ha (meant 800,000ha) but since then, they’ve got to Toowoomba, so what’s happening between Gatton and Toowoomba? So, we have no data. There is no reliable data on just about anything. The Queensland Audit Office report, the report they wrote this year and the one they wrote a couple of years back, and the program’s own risk management committee say the program has never collected any reliable data. So anybody’s claims that without the program the infestation would have got to Canberra is rubbish because they’ve got no data to support it.
SA This is the claim Minister Mark Furner made. Are you telling me he’s got no actual data?
PS There is no accurate data about anything. I mean if you looked at the Audit Office report, they’re still saying the program does not have a functioning information system and is not collecting data on performance.
PS I went to the Director of the Program in 2002 and said our reports to the (Consultative) Committees, the stats don’t add up. He just ignored me. So, we’ve had a non-functioning (information system) and even the Audit Office report recently said ‘you need to get a functioning information system and start collecting reliable data.’
SA And they still haven’t done that?
PS Never. I’ll tell you why. The Audit Office interviewed me a couple of years ago. They said to me, ‘What’s the problem?’ I said, with no data base and no data, if you can’t prove the program is working, you can’t prove it’s not.
SA This is ABC radio Brisbane, my guest is Dr Pam Swepson, a former Fire Ant Program Policy Officer who became a whistleblower over the mismanagement of this.
PS And can I just add, the Audit Office also said the expert advice on whether eradication was feasible was varied. They were interviewing other experts. The original United States experts said, and also the local experts were saying, eradication is not feasible and the Audit Office was also saying, some experts are still saying it was not feasible. And you know why we’ve got an eradication program, Steve?
SA We’ve got an eradication program we’ve been told over the years is not feasible to do it that way.
PS BUT…it attracts national funding.
SA OK this is ABC radio, Dr Pam Swepson is my guest. Now I want to suspend that there, and let the listener sit on that and I want to go to you personally. You’ve got a PhD, you were in the Program and you saw something wrong. I said ten years, but I was ten years too short. Twenty years ago you went to the Criminal Justice Commission here in Queensland, under appropriate legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, It’s an appropriate Act for a public servant in Queensland to say ‘somethings up’. It’s being deliberately mismanaged. What did you tell them, briefly, please?
PS I told them that the public were being misinformed about the program, because there was no data. They were being misinformed on the progress of the program and the Program was not reporting many serious issue affecting it. I was writing those reports based on operational managers’ reports and I knew what went to the funding bodies, those things weren’t included and the public was not being told those issues.
SA Now the Criminal Justice Commission rejected your whistleblower claim.
PS I listed all the things that were not being reported. All they had to do was to look at the reports that went to the funding bodies, and they never did and they found no substance to my complaint.
SA They found no substance to your complaint, even though you detailed how it was happening.
PS That’s right. And they took three years to do that and while they were taking three years, the Premier could say ‘I can’t do anything while it’s being investigated by the CMC.’ So, all the problems continued for three years unabated.
SA So it was the Criminal Misconduct Commission back then, was it?
PS The Crime and Misconduct Commission.
SA So you went to the body that has the powers of a standing Royal Commission, they can pull any bureaucrat, any person in, and say ‘Sorry, you have to tell the truth.’ They didn’t do that.
PS They changed the terms of my complaint. I said the program was misreporting to the funding bodies and the public, they changed my complaint to the Program Director was mis-reporting the Director-General. That’s what they investigated and found no substance.
SA Surprise, surprise.
PS Standard practice.
SA Standard practice? Oh, my goodness. Well, I’m glad you’re here. So let me go back to where are. So that’s the history of this thing. So you’re complaint, as a person who was writing for the reports for the department, and they said, ‘Nothing to see here.’ And here we are twenty years down the track. It’s spreading like wildfire, we’ve spent nearly a billion dollars and even the Auditor-General of Queensland says they have no data. No reliable data.
PS And the Audit Office has been saying that for…they did a report, in I think, 2019, they were saying Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent data to support ANY claims of progress.
SA Alright, so bring us up to date. So there were eight recommendations from the Auditor-General’s ‘Managing Invasive Species’ report released yesterday. Just in relation to fire ants, what stands out to you, Dr Pam Swepson? What is important to you? I assume, they still need to collect basic data, for goodness sake!
PS I think it’s too late. The Americans said, I’m going to jump ahead a little bit, the Americans said in 2001, if you neither eradication nor contain, the only thing left is self-management. That’s where we are now. And I think that will stop the…..I mean the Fire Ant Program for Queensland, and following on from your two last guests, both sides of politics have used the program as a cash cow. Queensland only puts in 10% of the money, but has been making 100% of the decisions on how it gets spent. So, it’s pumped a huge amount of money into Queensland.
SA So Queensland, to run the program, the other States are relying on Queensland to run this program effectively, we only put in 10% of the cash. The Commonwealth puts in the balance, or the Commonwealth puts in 50% and the balance from the States?
PS Correct. And the second biggest funder now is New South Wales.
SA Because they’re worried about the ant?
PS And they’ve just put out a notice to say, it looks like they are creating their own fire ant program, spending $80m on that. So, the Agriculture Ministers will make a decision on the 13th July about the future of the program – whether to keep sending more money into Queensland or send it back to the States, so it becomes a State-by-State program. And it looks like NSW MAY be deciding that’s where they are going to go. If New South Wales pulls out, they’ll all pull out.
SA OK. In what way is the program, or has it been, a cash cow for Queensland? Explain to me why you see it as a cash cow. I didn’t realise there was a bureaucratic difference between calling it a containment program versus an eradication program.
PS They’ve changed the meaning of the word eradication. They talk about ‘eradicating.’ What they mean is to apply a different sort of treatment. Eradication means there is not one ant left. That guy was saying ‘Send the eradication teams down to the Gold Coast.’ What he means is a particular sort of treatment. That’s a process, not a result. Eradication is a result, they’re talking about a process.
PS What was the question you asked me then?
SA Why is it a cash cow? Why does Queensland get all this money from the other States and the Commonwealth by calling it an eradication program?
PS If you claim you are going to eradicate, to completely get rid of this pest, for the sake of the country, the Commonwealth funding formula, is the Commonwealth will mostly fund that. If it’s a program, just to contain it within a state, the state has to fund that. Now, when the LNP government came in, whatever year that was…
SA 2012 I think.
PS I recommended they go the Commonwealth to change the funding formula. There’s good reasons why the Commonwealth, or the national funders, would fund a program to contain it within Queensland. That would have been in the national interest as well. That’s part of the problem, the Commonwealth funding formula creates an incentive for the States to pretend they are going to run an eradication program just to keep the money coming in.
SA Well, either way, its spreading like wildfire, it’s very close to the New South Wales border.
PS If not over.
SA If not over. Well, goodness knows where it is and the department still has, after two decades, they still don’t have any quality data.
PS Not a scrap. I mean, their own risk management committee, in about 2018, said the biggest risk to the program is the fact it has no reliable data.
SA This State government has been saying ‘We’re on track’ I forget their exact phrasing, so give me some latitude on the wording, ‘We’re on track to have a Fire Ant Free Olympics in 2032! Are we Pam Swepson?
PS The 2019 audit was scathing of the program, said it was unscientific, they didn’t know how to manage money, and was scathing of the Steering Committee. They are supposed to be audited every two years, so the Steering Committee commissioned another one, and I think their brief was ‘Give us some advice on what we actually have to do to eradicate the ants?’ They basically said it needs five times the amount of money and to dump half the program onto Local Councils. That’s the only way they are guesstimating that can actually happen. I can’t see that ever happening.
SA Why aren’t the Farmers’ Federation, or the rural lobby groups screaming about this?
PS That’s a good question. I have approached them and a couple of other industry bodies and they just back off. I don’t think they want to upset the department.
SA It’s been very revealing having you back in the studio. Thanks for coming in Dr Pam Swepson.
PS Thank you very much Steve for your support.
SA Dr Pam Swepson, originally a whistleblower 20 years ago, a former Fire Ant Program Policy Officer in Queensland.