Writings: Dr Pam Swepson, Fire Ant Program Whistleblower, announced Queensland Whistleblower of the year, interview on 4BC radio 5th July 2024.

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 Dr Pam Swepson – Fire Ant Program Whistleblower  – announced Queensland Whistleblower of the Year – interview with Gary Hardgrave 4BC radio – 5 July 2024.

Organisations large and small – sport clubs, community clubs, associations – all these things – at some point you’ll see or hear moments of corruption or dodgy practices. What do you do? Do you just accept that? Let the loudest voice prevail? Do you walk by when you see something wrong or corrupt? I think it takes real guts to call out something when it’s wrong. And I know that things like the fire ant experience is a major controversy now. I remember 20 years ago, or 18 years ago, when we were doing some renovations at our place. We couldn’t move a sod of dirt from the back yard until the fire ant inspection had occurred. And that’s fair enough. But I can’t for the life of me understand, here we are, almost two decades later and the fire ant problem is still prone and, in fact, expanding. All of this gets to the heart of my very next interview about everything that is wrong with the National Fire Ant Eradication Program. More than 20 years ago, Dr Pam Swepson, a former Senior Policy Officer at the Fisheries and Primary Industries Department exposed cases of mis-reporting the success of the fire ant program and how deficient it really was – even back then! In many ways, she’s now been vindicated because last year fire ants spread into northern NSW and the break-outs have only been getting worse without any signs of improvement in sight.

If it wasn’t for all her efforts, we’d be none the wiser about the failures happening inside the eradication program. And Dr Swepson, Pam Swepson, has just been named the Queensland Whistleblowers Action Group’s ‘Whistleblower of the Year.’  She joins me now.

Congratulations on the award. It’s bitter/sweet though, in a lot of ways, because we desperately need people like you to stand up when you see things that are wrong, but the problem is also, there are things wrong, Dr Swepson.

Pam Swepson:            Thank you for the opportunity and thank you for the congratulations Gary. This gives me an opportunity do what I’ve been trying to do for twenty years which is to tell the public the truth about the fire ant program. I joined the program before it actually was a program and I made a public interest disclosure to the Crime and Misconduct Commission in 2003 because I could see from 2001 that the reports that we were sending to the public and the national funders were over-stating the success of the program and not reporting serious issues. Now Gary, this is not a Queensland program. This is a national program and the people who make the decisions is a national committee made up of all of the States and Territories representatives, and they are the people who have been mis-reporting, or continue to tell the story that the program is succeeding.

Now I knew that the program was mis-reporting because it has never had a data base to collect information on the progress of the program, it has never collected any performance data to report about the program.

Sorry, I’ll go back a bit. I made my disclosure to the Crime and Misconduct Commission. I had data from the operational managers, I had data that was shared inside the department, I had data that was sent to the national oversight committee. All the Crime and Misconduct Commission had to do was to look at that data to show that they were mis-reporting. But for two years, nearly three years, they couldn’t do that, and, in the end, determined that there was no mis-reporting, so the mis-reporting has continued.

And the fact of the matter is now, Gary, as you said, twenty years, $1b and the infestation is at least twenty times worse. In fact, we don’t know where it is. It’s on the Darling Downs now, it’s into the Sunshine Coast, it’s down in northern New South Wales and the reason for that Gary, I’ll tell you why, is because the Commonwealth will fund a State for an eradication program, even if it’s a fake one, but they won’t give the States money for a tight containment program. Now we’ve got a failed program because the program has been using $1b of public money to throw bait willy-nilly around south-east Queensland chasing after the last fire ant when they’ve done nothing to stop the movement of fire ants in soil and mulch. Now, we’ve got a big infestation in south-east Queensland, as you say, up onto the Sunshine Coast and down to northern New South Wales because there’s been no control on the movement of fire ants in soil and mulch and that sort of thing.  That’s how the housing development down in Wardell in New South Wales got infested and that’s how most of the infestation has spread in south-east Queensland. It’s been happening because throwing bait around willy nilly has done almost nothing but made it worse and failing to contain the spread of fire ants is the reason why it’s now out of control.

GH      So we really are actually going backward. We see these maps published every so often. I’m on the email service, because, as I said, I was visited 18 year ago, or there abouts, and the people came around and said ‘No, no no. They’re not fire ants. They’re something else. OK.  Carry on, You’ll be fine.’  So we did what we were meant to do before we started building, apparently, at that time. I don’t know what they rules are now.

PS        You were told not treat your property because it’s difficult to treat fire ants,  but NOW, the program is dumping that onto the public because it’s all out of control and are now telling the public they have to.  They’ve flipped their rules because they’ve spent $1b and its out of control so the program is dumping it back onto the public and local councils now.

GH      So really it’s a case of ‘You’ve got to fix your own ills?.’  So we’re back to what fire ants do. They are nasty, nasty little critters. They are capable of killing animals. They’re capable, frankly of killing small children if they’re bitten enough. I mean, they’re bad news.

PS        I’ll tell you a story. I interviewed a young couple on a new property and they apologised that their back yard looked like a mess because it was in an area which was a new development. They had their toddler out there with a hose and this little guy pointed the hose at what looked like a pile of dirt –  and he was swarmed by fire ants. If his parents hadn’t been there, they would have been all over him and stung him badly, possibly getting to his eyes. He would have been a mess. Now, that’s what fire ants can actually do. Anything that happens to drop onto a nest is likely to be very badly stung. And if you happened to be allergic to the toxin you can go into anaphylaxis.

GH      So again where are we at? We don’t know where we’re at. That’s the point after $1b, 20 years, employing people to go around to say ‘No, you’ll be right. You can dig your footings, Have a nice day.’  Nothing really has changed except it’s got worse!

PS        That’s about it! Its twenty times, if not more, twenty times worse,.  I mean, the Americans who inspected us here in 2001 said it was as bad as anything in the United States. They said we need to start managing it, like happens in the USA.  You’re never going to eradicate it, you need to have serious containment programs and professional treatment to have any chance of managing it. And we’ve done none of that tight management for 20 years. But that’s what the State government is now pushing onto local councils.

GH      But we’ve got things like little stickers that go onto pots to say, you know, fire ant protected, or whatever. So maybe none of that’s even worth the paper its stuck on? It’s nonsense by the sounds of it.

PS        It depends on the industry. Some industries are really careful. I mean New South Wales and Victoria won’t accept potted plants from Queensland, because they don’t trust Queensland inspections. They want nursery operators, at extra cost, to do particular sorts of inspections. There are industries who really are bending over backwards to do their responsibility.  But we can’t be guaranteed. You can’t be guaranteed.

GH      But the point is, you’ll know if you’ve got fire ants around your house, won’t you?

PS        No.

GH      You won’t??

PS        No. You won’t know because, at this time of the year, with this cold weather, they stay underground and you won’t see them above ground. Or you might see a pile of dirt above ground at this time of the year. Or young nests can be underground before they appear above ground. So, you can’t know for sure. I mean, a nest looks like a pile of dirt. If you trip on it and it swarms, you’ve got a fire ant nest. But you can’t be sure you haven’t got it. If there are fire ants in your area, and they fly, and you’ve got a nice, cultivated garden patch, that’s a perfect place for a young queen to land and create a nest.

GH      You can’t kill them and you can’t control them. Well, thank you for whistleblowing on this. The trouble you went through, the problems you created in the minds of those around you must have been enormous. So there must have been a lot of pain there for a while.

PS        I blew the whistle because I was genuinely concerned about the program because I know how bad this thing is and I thought the program was a chance to do something about it. And when I saw that things weren’t going right, I disclosed inside the department and said ‘We need to do something about this’ I also went to the crime and misconduct commission with the intention of trying to get some action taken on the program. Things happened after I did that. I held a substantive position in the department, but the department then registered me for redeployment, which I believe that was a breach of the Whistleblowers Protection Act. They had me on track to remove me from the department because I had blown the whistle.

GH      Well, either way, thank you for everything you’ve done for Queenslanders. Let’s try and get some clear, open transparency on all of this. And congratulations on being the whistleblower of the year. I think that we own you a debt of thanks Dr Swepson. Thank you for your time today.

PS        Thank you very much Gary

GH      Good on you.  That was Dr Pam Swepson and that takes a bit of courage there, ethics, courage.

5th July 2024