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Whistleblowing Women

Australian women who blow the whistle on corruption in their workplaces.

Dr Pam Swepson and Robyn Chapman : Whistleblowing Women in the Queensland Department of Primary Industries

Brisbane-born Dr Pam Swepson joined the Queensland Department of Primary Industries in August 1987, aged 39.

Pam Swepson was employed as a training and development officer.

She was seconded to the fire ant unit on the discovery of fire ants in Brisbane in February 2001.

Her role as manager of community engagement was to liaise with city residents, businesses and industries likely to be impacted by the DPI's fire and eradication work.

She would later become policy adviser within the National Fire Ant Eradication Program.

Pam Swepson wrote reports every three weeks based on reports written by program managers.

Her reports were drafted for State Cabinet and state and federal program monitoring and primary industry bodies.

In a short time, however, Pam Swepson became concerned over discrepancies between what the program managers were reporting and what was being offered to the stakeholders.

She believed the "narrative" of the fire ant eradication was being spun to give the impression that the fight against the fire ant had been a success.

In March 2003 Pam Swepson decided to report the issue to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC).

In her formal submission she wrote "I wish to make a public interest disclosure under Section 28 of the WPA (Whistleblowers Protection Act) that the public, the parliament, the Premier, the Governor and the Commonwealth and other states and territories are being misled by reports that overstate the success of the program by omitting to report the serious issues that continue to threaten the success of the program."

"It started to go bad from the word go," Pam Swepson says.

"People don't want to hear that things aren't working."

The CMC's three-year investigation found "no official misconduct on the part of any person".

The CMC found no need for any further action to be taken.

And Dr Pam Swepson was drummed out of the Queensland public service.

Swepson's colleague at the centre, lawyer Robyn Chapman, drafted a lot of the early state fire ant legislation.

Chapman remembers Swepson being "horrified" at the erroneous reports about the program leaving the building.

"I didn't know Pam well at the time," Chapman recalls. "She waged an amazing campaign.

"I'm fairly strong, but I don't think I could have done what she did. She was just so committed to it.

"I have to make it clear Pam has been a lone figure in this struggle.

"In the early days I said to her I didn't think it was a good idea, the whistleblowing, because the culture ... they would just get her, and they did, they did."

Chapman says Swepson's protestations were repeatedly rebuffed.

Nobody wanted to hear anything critical of this multi-million-dollar program.

"I think it's a case where they started lying at the beginning and they actually thought they would have some success, then as the years went on they were sort of trapped into the story," says Chapman.

"The government at no stage got good, objective advice from the public servants who mattered. It was a bit circular anyway. The government was looking for a good success story."

In 2013, on her retirement from the former department of employment, economic development and innovation's legislation unit, Robyn Chapman, too, offered a disclosure to the then newly elected Newman Government.

She wrote, "since the earliest days of the fire ant story, the department has misreported on the real extent of the incursion and on the chances of eradication. The main impact of the fire ant mismanagement is that while pretending that eradication is feasible there has been no attempt at devising an effective control program. Anyone in the department ... knows the ants are well established and rapidly spreading."

So, almost a decade after Swepson's initial observations, another senior figure linked to the fire ant program was making similar allegations about misreporting, mismanagement, a program rendered dysfunctional by poor decisions and profligate spending.

"It's a disaster, and it has been since I blew the whistle in 2003. Nothing's changed," says Swepson.

December 2016 update :

Fire ants have now killed 80 people in the US.

Some people go into anaphylactic shock after being bitten.

Ms Swepson says that the Americans advised aerial baiting with helicopters.

"But Henry Palaszczuk had a ground force of 400 people spread the bait.

"It was a great boost to employment".

Now the Fire Ants have invaded all but two Ipswich suburbs.

They are marching through south-east Queensland and towards the NSW border.

Ms Swepson says the biggest impact will be on the economy, lifestyle and agriculture.

"If you have an infested field you can't get labourers in there because they will get stung.

"If you have fire ants in your yard you can't let your kids go out because they will get stung.

"If a toddler falls on a nest hundreds will run up their leg and sting simultaneously."

Ms Swepson says that there has been a "total failure of Biosecurity Queensland".

She recommends that the Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program be taken out of the hands of Biosecurity Queensland.