IT seems that people who ask legitimate questions and apply logic are to be labelled with the pejorative —  ‘sceptic’.
In November 2004 The Mercury published a front page lead story headlined: ‘Fox Fraud — Taskforce hunt for pest a costly fraud, says MLC’.

The MLC was the then Member for Murchison, Tony Fletcher. This elected member of parliament made some strong statements that could not be dismissed because as a lawyer by training, he was publicly charging that the State Government had not made the case for its war on foxes.

Quite independently of Mr Fletcher, and of MLC Ivan Dean and of the then ALP Senator Shane Murphy, I raised queries about the handling of evidence arising from Tasmanian fox incidents — as a veterinary pathologist. I had tried on a number of occasions to engage the authorities on the similarity between the handling of serious exotic animal disease — like Foot & Mouth Disease of Mad Cow Disease and the introduction of a serious macro-organism like the fox.

From my perspective to obtain sound evidence that was treated seriously and tested impeccably was the ONLY way that the State Government and its bureaucracy would proceed to immediately contain and control the threat posed by any unwanted alien species.

The great value of having such a procedure in place in terms of responses to disease threat is so that scarce taxpayer resources are used effectively.

Yes, of course you apply ‘the Precautionary Principle’. It is ALWAYS the justification for maintaining strong quarantine barriers to prevent the introduction of any unwanted organisms for which the ‘likelihood’ for entry, establishment and spread are HIGH and the ‘consequences’ of entry, establishment and spread are VERY SERIOUS. The incursion of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) into Tasmania would certainly satisfy that Import Risk Assessment and demand the application of the Precautionary Principle in managing the risk.

Applying that logic, I suggested that if Tasmania did nothing to control ‘entry’ into the island state of live foxes then the use of 1080-meat bait as the only effective tool of fox control would be costly and ongoing and could lead to the unnecessary deaths of some species of native fauna, particularly the spotted-tail quoll.

Shocking allegation of conspiracy

But the State Government was clearly convinced that the entry of foxes was due to a secretive cabal of Tasmanian hunters who maliciously brought in fox cubs, reared them and released them in three or four sites across the state. This seemed like a plausible, albeit shocking allegation of conspiracy. Yet that is exactly what the State Government alleged and continues to allege is the origin of our current fox problem.

“FOX PLOT — How animal dumpers escaped the law” was the front page The Mercury headlines on 5 June 2002. In the article David Llewellyn made his case for the conspiracy. The trouble with this media ‘propaganda’ was that his own Police Department had told him (12 months earlier) in no uncertain terms that there was no basis for his assertions. In fact he is on the public record stating that the fox smuggling allegations, for which he is so doggedly convinced, remained ‘unsubstantiated’.

What does this mean? Does it mean the original evidence provided to Minister Llewellyn was contrived or fabricated? Does it mean that Tasmania Police were hoodwinked or sloppy in their investigation? Does it mean that Minister Llewellyn’s sincerely held belief of a conspiracy to import foxes is actually baseless? Does it mean that the real evidence to support Minister Llewellyn’s claim is to remain secret — even to this day?

If the Government was genuine in its war against foxes it would have applied the universally accepted Import Risk Assessment approach, developed Appropriate Levels of Protection for Tasmania and ensured that the decisions they made using Tax-payer funds were based on verifiable proof and the application of the ‘Precautionary Principle’.

In April 2005 I wrote a letter to The Mercury headed: “Weapons of mass deception”. In the letter I questioned the use of broadscale 1080-fox baits and highlighted what, to me were inconsistencies or gaps in the evidence offered on foxes and the conclusions made. I concluded the letter thus:

How can that be?

“Keep foxes out of Tasmania by all means, but we do need independent verification of all ‘the hard evidence’. With additional millions of dollars requested for future fox activities we run the risk of having a serious imminent threat that might be used as a weapon of mass deception.”

Yet it now seems that those who express their sincerely held opinions publicly are to be held responsible for the apparent reluctance of others to identify themselves with fox incidents.

How can that be?

It is of concern to me how selective that identification process has been. In previous postings and indeed in written evidence to the Expert Fox review panel I identified two Tasmanians who reported two separate incidents involving the sighting of a fox. Each person had high credibility and the circumstances of their sighting warranted careful assessment & on site investigation (at the very least); yet neither incident was officially recorded in the Taskforce databases. One of these incidents has been acknowledged by the spokesperson for FFTF as THE triggering incident for the establishment of the FFTF. I find that omission, particularly troubling.

The coincidence of this sighting of a fox with another report of a fox escaping from a freight container being unloaded at the Agfest site (near Carrick & Longford) only days earlier, seems also to have been overlooked. Why is this so?

The other incident that warranted official recording by the FFTF — but never was — was the close observation of a fox by a skilled field biologist on a property in the Conara area on 5 September 2002. I have asked on a number of occasions why this incident was never recorded officially in the chronological ‘Fox Sighting’ listings (released under FOI).

This was a significant ‘index incident’ that warranted thorough investigation and follow up. The primary source had very high credibility and made his report formally. In fact he also accompanied two FFTF members to the location on 16 September 2002. He states that at that time of their inspection, they found other physical evidence suggestive of fox presence (at least one scat and a possible den site). I am uncertain whether the fox sniffer dogs were subsequently employed to trace the area.

Unfortunate pattern of investigation

Just as for ANY reported hotspot location where an exotic organism is likely to occur, the collection of additional physical evidence and the enlistment of local community support at the hotspot are paramount.

So now back to Conara in August 2006. As I suggested in an earlier posting a very unfortunate pattern of investigation and analysis is on display. Commencing with notification of plausible fox find; then the media interviews with the initially ‘who wish to remain anonymous’ discoverers — who later go public; then the media story of conviction that this is the ‘final proof’ needed; the requests from independents (like me) to obtain corroborative evidence from the site and the need to identify the person who killed the fox. One would think all rather logical and necessary component s to the management of a fox incident.

Two and half days later a Department press release (posted on this website) tells us that an anonymous male driver did run down the fox at Conara on 1 August, however, we don’t know who he is or whether any attempt was made to corroborate his version of events or to check his vehicle.

In late July this year Minister Llewellyn personally assured me that any future fox incidents would be rigorously investigated and assessed in the same way as a road accident or crime scene. This followed on from similar assurances he gave to a Tasmanian parliamentarian during Budget Estimate hearings only days earlier.

Self-censoring culture

The August 1, 2006 Conara incident was a very important fox incident and yet it appears that the on-site assessment was not referred to any appropriately trained personnel.

With the number of hoaxes and fabrications that have occurred since 2001, I would have thought that the need to professionally assess all subsequent incidents where physical fox evidence is present would be of the highest priority.
I even offered and continue to offer my services free of charge as a Wildcare volunteer.

Rather than perceiving individuals who question and inquire as adversaries and sceptics, such engagement should be welcomed.

What has created this self-censoring ‘culture’ where an ordinary person who kills a fox on a Tasmanian road in 2006 feels that he cannot identify himself for risk — as DPIW state — of ‘ridicule, cynicism and public speculation’.

All along my concern has been about PROCESS. For me, ‘the means justifies the end’ and not the other way around. If we allow the end to justify the means, I believe we are open to compromised logic and at worst — fabrication.

If science is the ART of the Precautionary Principle and politics is the ART of the possible, then Tasmania truly needs a ‘marriage’ or a reconciliation of these two powerful processes.

The Tasmanian fox saga is yet another example of why we desperately need proper processes. 

Earlier:
David Obendorf
Nick Mooney 

David Obendorf

What does this mean? Does it mean the original evidence provided to Minister Llewellyn was contrived or fabricated? Does it mean that Tasmania Police were hoodwinked or sloppy in their investigation? Does it mean that Minister Llewellyn’s sincerely held belief of a conspiracy to import foxes is actually baseless? Does it mean that the real evidence to support Minister Llewellyn’s claim is to remain secret — even to this day?

So now back to Conara in August 2006. As I suggested in an earlier posting a very unfortunate pattern of investigation and analysis is on display. Commencing with notification of plausible fox find; then the media interviews with the initially ‘who wish to remain anonymous’ discoverers — who later go public; then the media story of conviction that this is the ‘final proof’ needed; the requests from independents (like me) to obtain corroborative evidence from the site and the need to identify the person who killed the fox. One would think all rather logical and necessary component s to the management of a fox incident.

What has created this self-censoring ‘culture’ where an ordinary person who kills a fox on a Tasmanian road in 2006 feels that he cannot identify himself for risk — as DPIW state — of ‘ridicule, cynicism and public speculation’.