Seven fire ant essentials

Earlier this year we took US fire ant expert Dr Robert Puckett (right) across Australia arguing the case for full funding of the country’s red fire ant eradication program. Robert is pictured here with Biosecurity Queensland’s Scientific Services Manager, Dr Ross Wylie.

Federal and state governments look set to approve the needed boost in funding for red fire ant eradication. But without structural changes to the program it still may not succeed.

Over the past nine months we have led the call for every state, territory and the federal government to fully fund the complete eradication of red fire ants from Australia. 

We took the message to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and won his support for the eradication program. We spoke with every state and territory government and most have now made their support known publicly.

Thanks to your support they listened when we took the lead in calling for $380 million over ten years to eradicate fire ants from Australia. We made fire ants a national issue and have achieved that goal.

But the final push to eradicate fire ants will be a long process, and to succeed it needs to capture the hearts and minds of the residents in and around the infestation areas south of Brisbane and it needs the confidence of all Australians.

Local governments and community clubs have expressed their concerns about what it might mean for parks, sporting fields and bushland reserves. Many industries have joined the call too.


Ramping up the campaign

Recently, people in Brisbane will have noticed fire ant fliers appearing in their letterboxes and newspaper and radio advertising and Facebook ads asking them to be alert and report what they see.

The eradication program has hired new staff, ramping up its ability to respond more quickly when fire ant nests are found and to conduct ongoing surveillance work. The program is no longer being held back by lack of funding or political support. The way is now open for a fully fledged campaign to eradicate fire ants from Australia.


Water saved, now let’s eradicate ants

When Brisbane was running out of water during the “Millennium drought” early last decade an independent commission was created and led the response – not a government response but a citywide effort.

The commission was so successful that it blitzed the target of reducing water usage below 140 litres per person a day to 126 litres per day. Water usage has never returned to its pre-drought high of 179 litres a day and the commission has evolved into a permanent statutory authority.

What can we learn from that response? The community of greater Brisbane – Ipswich, Logan, Redlands, Moreton Bay and Gold Coast city – will respond, engage with and support the fire ant eradication program if they are mobilised and inspired.

If the fire ant program is given more independence as a stand-alone body, and has a broader reporting requirement to its funders, the community and industry, it will have greater freedom to respond and engage with the community on a deeper level. To be successful the program must react as the infestation evolves but also pro-actively work through media, local government, community groups, industry and with new technology and social media to mobilise a community response.


Managing for eradication

We have just provided a report to the nine state and federal governments funding red fire ant eradication. The report suggests the essential governance elements needed to improve how the eradication program is run. It explains how to reposition management arrangements for the difficult job ahead and adopts a more open and inclusive model that builds community and industry trust.

Our report proposes these seven essential elements of effective governance for eradicating red fire ants:

  1. Design an effective governance approach, including by consulting stakeholders and seeking the advice of experts.
  2. Ensure that the structures and processes provide robust oversight and accountability to funders, industry and the community.
  3. Make sure decision-making is transparent so that stakeholders understand the rationale for decisions and can have confidence in the program.
  4. Develop a comprehensive eradication plan that includes techniques, costings, assumptions, roles and responsibilities, milestones.
  5. Create an independent body to ensure the program is managed effectively.
  6. Involve experts from relevant fields for program design, advice and review.
  7. Make sure the community and industry is meaningfully engaged in the program.

A new response model is needed for the fire ant eradication program. Getting the program oversight and structure right will create an environment for success and build community confidence over the long term through both setbacks and success.

You helped us build a coalition supporting the call to action. Now, if the federal and state governments funding the eradication program embrace the needed changes, the same coalition is ready to support what comes next.


More info

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2 Responses to “Seven fire ant essentials”

  1. The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has been a colossal waste of public funds. The (Qld) Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 savaged the ability of Biosecurity Queensland, which manages the fire ant program, to manage the program’s finances. The science review of 2010 found that it was impossible to eradicate fire ants with Biosecurity Queensland current methods. Consequently, Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money over 16 years and the fire ant infestation is now 10 times worse than it was in 2001.

    Given that the fire ant program is a 100% publicly funded, the primary purpose of the governance of any future program must be the sound use of public money.

    The Invasive Species Council makes no recommendations for proper governance of the use of public funds in any future program. Some of the ISC’s actions and recommendations, I believe, are likely to compromise the sound use of public funds. For example:

    Extracting commitments from States and Territory jurisdictions to fund a future fire ant program, sight unseen; ie prior to the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum making any decision on the nature of any future program (eradication, containment or control), funding levels and the management of any future program can be seen as financially reckless.

    Recommending that State and Territory jurisdictions lose their authority to withdraw funds from any future fire ant program if they believe it is failing and is wasting their tax-payers’ money can also be seen as financially reckless.

    Recommending that the governance of a future fire ant program be taken over by independent external agency when it is unlikely an external agency could ensure the good governance of public money because it:

    • would not have the authority to scrutinise the use of public funds.

    • Is not likely to have sufficient insight into the program to provide scrutiny in the use of public funds. For example, the ISC has investigated the current fire ant program over the past year and, recklessly, I believe:

    o Accepts the findings of the 2016 review that a future fire ant program needs $360m over 10 years, with even less scrutiny than now, when the reviewers admit that $360m was not much more a guess: a request for just more of the same. Such advice is definitely financially reckless.

    o Accepts the findings of the 2016 review to continue the same programs that have failed so far, including re-commissioning the ill-advised, very expensive and ultimately failed remote-sensing aerial surveillance program. This recommendation is financially reckless and contradicts the findings of the 2010 review that eradication was impossible with Biosecurity Queensland’s current methods.

    o Accepts the findings of the 2016 review that it is technically feasible to eradicate fire ants when this claim is beyond the authority and the terms of reference of the review and the reviews findings are totally unsupported by any scientific evidence.

    There is no doubt that the governance of the fire ant program by oversight committees managed by the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources over the past 16 years has been appalling. I have reported multiple, well-documented failures of the oversight committees to the Minister and the Chair of the oversight committees.

    But, I believe that the proper functioning of the public agencies responsible for the scrutiny of the use of public funds is preferable to the imposition of yet another committee, and an external and potentially expensive one at that, and I have made recommendations to that effect to the Minister.

    I make my recommendations on the basis of my extensive knowledge of the fire ant program over many years and many years of experience as an organisational psychologist advising on governance and management matters is both public and private organisations.

    Note: The Invasive Species Council viewed these comments before they were posted here on the Feral Herald

    • The Invasive Species Council disagrees with many of Pam Swepson’s comments above.

      It was suggested that we make no recommendations for the use of public funds. Our governance recommendations are all about how to make the best use of public funds.

      We make no direct mention of the need for any governing body to control funding because it is assumed, or indeed obvious, that the body can influence funding. At any point one or more governments can withdraw their funding. Their funding commitments will not be contractually bound.

      If our proposed independent oversight body was created and this body identified problems with the eradication program, then it could either require changes to be made or at worst ask the other state and federal government funders to temporarily or permanently hold back funds.

      Pam also wrongly suggested that the 2015 biosecurity capability review “savaged the ability of Biosecurity Queensland, which manages the fire ant program, to manage the program’s finances. “.

      The 2015 capability review did not criticise Biosecurity Queensland’s management of the fire ant program. It pointed out the problem of managing a program at a time when the nationally agreed funding was insufficient and provided year-by-year. We have been unable to find a reference in the capability review to Biosecurity Queensland’s deficiencies in managing the fire ant funding.

      Page 205 of the review does say: “Red Imported Fire Ants in South East Queensland – a recurring challenge for the fire ant program is its lack of nationally agreed funding and future certainty. Managing the program in this environment is particularly difficult.”

      The Invasive Species Council strongly rejects the suggestion that we are being “financially reckless” in calling for more funds “sight unseen”.

      The need for greater funding was an obvious limitation of the eradication program. The governance deficiencies were the other main limitation.

      While we may have been public in our calls for increased funding, we have been raising the issue of governance changes informally and privately in our direct discussions with governments over the past year.

      We do not agree that the Invasive Species Council is being reckless in accepting the findings of the 2016 independent review of the eradication program.

      While Pam notes that we were given the opportunity to view her comments before they were posted, our feedback to her does not appear to have resulted in any substantial changes to Pam’s final post.