*‘THE Longford photo (of the anonymous hunters and dead fox) is indeed likely an irresponsible hoax’ — Nick Mooney, Tasmanian Times 29 July, 2004

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THE ONLY FOXES that have come to Tasmania in the past 6 or 7 years came here because our State border quarantine was incapable of detecting them or keeping them out.

I believe the State Government would begrudgingly agree with this assessment. But their explanation was that they knew the people importing, rearing and releasing foxes in Tasmania; not that their own detection capability was hopelessly inadequate.

When Bass Strait — a 250 km stretch of water — is no physical deterrent to the entry of the fox, it became far easier (and less embarrassing) to construct and then foster the notion that several individuals in Tasmania were involved in covert attempts to smuggle in young foxes, raise them in secret and release them at several locations across the State. In July 2004 on this website, Tasmanian Times readers were told the authorities ‘were pretty sure who was involved with importing, rearing and releasing foxes.’

The fox smuggling option was a convenient explanation and yet no public body, including Tasmania Police, has been able to substantiate that allegation. Despite the posting of a substantial State Government reward ($50,000) and the instigation of a Police Taskforce made up of CIB personnel, the intelligence provided by DPIWE staff in 2001 and interviews with the ‘original source’ of this intelligence has failed to uncover any clandestine ring of malevolent fox smugglers or environmental vandals. 

There is a fateful timeline of incidents that highlights the insecurity of our Tasmanian border to the entry of single live foxes and various fox material that could be used for the purposes of hoaxing and fabrication.

Disturbing new information

Disturbing new information — never before offered up by authorities — was recently provided by Tasmania Police under the Freedom of Information Act.  They issued documents of a witness report and a subsequent written statement alleging that a live fox was seen escaping from an interstate freight container at the Agfest site near Carrick in late April or early May 2001.

That incident, if it’s correct, is serious and would represent another breach of Tasmania’s quarantine barrier; the others being the escape of a fox off the Bass Strait freight ferry in May 1998 and the presence of a freshly dead fox on the roadside near the same facility in October 2003. Police also provided documents under FoI noting the difficulties experienced by Police Taskforce officers over their ability to corroborate any of the intelligence (which included the specific identification of suspected individuals) provided to Police by DPIWE staff, and presumably based on the allegation of an informant known to DPIWE. Tasmania Police expressed it in these terms:

‘[The informant — blanked out] was more than happy to take the time from his work site to meet and discuss this issue with us [Tasmania Police Taskforce]. The original statement he made was discussed, along with some briefing notes and details of the Confidential Note.’

[The reference to the ‘Confidential Note’ refers to a briefing document supplied to the Minister for PIW&E and Police, David Llewellyn in June 2001.]

‘[The informant — blanked out] expressed amazement as to how much information, details, names and locations could be logged through him. He was unequivocal in that the contents of his statement [given to Police] were as much as he ever said.’

‘In this enquiry with our agenda in mind, I make these summations and also take into account the other role of wildlife personnel on alleged sightings etc, that there is no solid physical, forensic/scientific evidence to support findings of illegal importations of fox or presence of fox in Tasmania.’

Police FoI documents state

‘With our agenda in mind, I cannot explain the full contents and information that came to be in the Minister’s Briefing Note. I can only say that our investigation was a totally negative finding.’
 
I believe this indicates that Tasmania Police were of the view that the detailed intelligence provided to Minister Llewellyn by DPIWE staff was not based on the information from the ‘original source’.

So, if the ‘original source’ wasn’t the original source, where else did that specific intelligence — naming of two individuals and referring to a third person — in the Minister’s Confidential Note come from?

When these suspects were located and personally interviewed, the Police FoI documents state:

‘All persons spoken to [by Tasmania Police Taskforce] express their concerns about the presence of the fox. All have stated they themselves will talk and listen and pass on any relevant information to the authorities.’

‘I feel that all persons spoken to co-operated fully, with total understanding and will continue to co-operate.’

So, according to Tasmania Police, there is no substance to the fox smuggling allegation and Police questioned the intelligence upon which the then (and current) Minister David Llewellyn continued to assert that there was. For example 11 months after the Police reported their negative finding, Police Minister Llewellyn was still claiming publicly that there was evidence that numerous foxes were smuggled in and released at four locations in Tasmania [The Mercury, 5 June, 2002]. But there was no evidence, his Department of Primary Industries and Water had none and his Police Department had given him a full account of their fruitless investigations. By this time, numerous elected representatives in the State and Federal Parliament were openly sceptical of these assertions [Senator Shane Murphy, MLC Tony Fletcher and MLC Ivan Dean].

The foxhole

So, had the Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment led their Minister down a fox hole? I believe they just might have. And when Tasmania Police couldn’t corroborate the intelligence prepared by DPIWE staff, why did he and his successors in the DPIWE or the Environment portfolio (Bryan Green and Judy Jackson) still persist in asserting that this was the case? 

Had the claim that foxes had entered and established in Tasmania now become a political matter rather than an evidence-based risk assessment?

Generally once a Minister of the Crown has committed to a view and taken a submission for long-term funding to Cabinet, there would be a reluctance to change tack. In my view, the greatest weakness in attempts at keeping Tasmania fox-free has been the failure to recognise the threat posed by trans-Strait shipping and the threat assessment about the fox populations in the vicinity of the Port of Melbourne — the main freight trans-shipment point for Tasmania.

In August 2001, David Llewellyn went to his counterpart in the Commonwealth government to secure extra funds to support the fox-free program, but the Commonwealth declined to oblige; in fact a very public disagreement ensued over this issue. We were told by a department correspondent to this website in July 2004 that this ‘knock-back’ was largely because the feds were committed to preventing foxes establishing, and not getting rid of them once they were here. The department correspondent went on to state that the feds were of the view that because foxes had already established in Tasmania, it was a State responsibility. So we are led to believe that the State could not convince the Commonwealth to fund the eradication of foxes because the feds believed they were already established; and yet State’s preferred explanation for the presence of foxes in Tasmania was found by the Police to be ‘a totally negative finding’. 

Fresh media on fox sightings

In the end the State government funded the Fox-Free Taskforce program principally out of its own consolidated revenue. This led to the creation of several new positions for beleaguered rangers, who at the time were facing a fresh round of down-sizing.

Nearly 5 years on, and the laying of over 50,000 1080-meat baits, fresh media on fox sightings continues unabated. It was far too convenient for authorities (except Tasmania Police) to propagandise the notion that a cabal of hunters or environmental vandals were the cause of foxes to have entered Tasmania. When several fox hoaxes occurred in 2001 the Taskforce found themselves under-resourced to undertake a proper forensic investigation of these incidents and in my view this led to errors in judgement.  An additional 60,000 1080-meat baits are to be laid by private contactors in future years. 

With a large urban fox population sitting close by in southern Australia, Tasmania has always been at risk of fox entry through vehicular and freight movement across Bass Strait. The slack quarantine standards and the known shenanigans at the ports on both sides of the Strait are our ‘Achilles heel’. There has been a denial of this ever-present risk, and whilst ever this opportunity remains open, further entry of foxes is likely. It was too convenient to believe the covert action of several individuals to smuggle in up to 19 fox cubs into the State, because it was too embarrassing to admit that the State borders were insecure and it seemed too difficult to find an effective biosecurity remedy.

A panel of three scientists on the Fox Expert Review is due to report to the State Government shortly.

A department correspondent in July 2004 stated: ‘Be assured, if someone could show how this is all some bizarre cocktail of hoaxes I’d be happier than having to accept we have foxes in Tasmania.’

No, not all hoaxes or covert smuggling. Consider inadequate border quarantine — a State government responsibility — as a likely ‘Trojan horse’ that brings foxes to Tasmania.