Queensland Treasury has given Biosecurity Queensland nearly $1m to make a pitch for another $400m for a new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Plan to replace the Failed Fifteen Year Fire Ant Eradication Program. Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money over the past fifteen years chasing fire ants: with the result that fire ants are now out of control, infesting an area ten times bigger than fifteen years ago: evidence of Biosecurity Queensland’s incompetence. And while it has been a pretty poor investment of public money, it has been a boon to Queensland Treasury. Over the past fifteen years, the Queensland Government has contributed about $40m to the fire ant budget, but received $360m in return from the Commonwealth and other States and Territories governments. In July 2017, the Australian Agriculture Ministers will decide the future of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. We have to hope they continue to fund a program to rid Australia of this super-pest, the Ministers will be throwing more good public money after bad if Biosecurity Queensland’s new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is the same as the Failed Fifteen Year National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. The only way to get a new, effective National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is with new and effective program managers. 19 April 2017
Over the past fifteen years, Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money running the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program: with the result that fire ants are now spreading out of control. They infest an area of south-east Queensland ten times bigger than in 2002. Biosecurity Queensland has wasted a lot of public money with no appreciable benefit for the Queensland and Australian public.
But the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has been a boon to the Queensland government. Under the national cost share arrangement, Queensland has contributed 10%, or about $40m, of the total fire ant budget, and received $360m from the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments in return.
But crunch time is coming when the Australian Agriculture Ministers will meet in July 2017 to decide the future of the fire ant program: to continue trying to eradicate the pest or change the focus of the program to containing and managing it within Queensland. If they decide that it is still possible to eradicate fire ants, the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments will pay for it. If they decide the chance for eradication has past, the Queensland government will have to fund its own containment and management program. So, the Queensland Treasury has given Biosecurity Queensland $900,000 to make a pitch to for another eradication program that will bring another $360m into the Queensland Treasury.
The large Task Force preparing Biosecurity Queensland’s pitch for more money, is made up of long-term, well entrenched fire ant program managers and staff. When they came under the gaze of a Biosecurity Queensland Capability review in 2015, the reviewers did not think much of their leadership skills. They said Biosecurity Queensland leaders did not have the capacity to implement the changes required to meet current or future needs biosecurity needs. They noted that leaders had come into their leadership roles through incremental changes to their previous positions, and not because they were the best people for the job. Consequently, they lacked the ability to plan a program because of their limited understanding of cost drivers and risk management and they lacked the skills and the data to evaluate their programs. A low-quality Task Force, keen to protect their jobs for the next ten years is likely to produce a low-quality plan for the future. Entitled the Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program, it is likely to be simply more of the same Failed Fifteen Year Fire Ant Eradication Program that cannot find, kill or stop the spread of fire ants and is just a waste of public money.
Biosecurity Queensland’s Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is likely to say two things: that Biosecurity Queensland is on-track to eradicate fire ants and that it has the tools to finish the job. Neither of these claims can stand up.
Not on track to eradicate fire ants since 2004.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim that it is well on track to eradicate fire ants because it has already eradicated some fire ant populations. The truth is, Biosecurity Queensland has no performance data to support any claims of success. Reviewers of the program have complained repeatedly, since 2001 and as recently as 2015, that the program has no performance data. The science review team of 2009 said that Biosecurity Queensland had not been on track to eradicate fire ants since 2004.
Biosecurity Queensland is likely to say that it is on track to eradicate fire ants because it has finally defined the limits of the 400,000ha entrenched infestation in south east Queensland. The truth is that since Biosecurity Queensland published the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map in July 2016, fire ants have been found outside it.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will say that the reason it has not eradicated all fire ants so far is because funding from the Commonwealth and other States and Territories has been uncertain and inadequate. The Biosecurity Capability Review in 2015 acknowledged that national cost sharing arrangements can be slow to make decisions about continued funding. But, the reviewers said, a good part of the funding problem is of Biosecurity Queensland’s own making. The reviewers said that Biosecurity Queensland lacked the ability to give funding bodies good business cases, based on a sound investment framework and performance management data for continued funding. The reviewers said that Biosecurity Queensland’s conflicted and inconsistent decision making meant it did not make the best use of its resources (money and staff) and that it was likely to spend money on high cost activities with variable rates of return rather than lower cost, more strategic activities more likely to protect the Australian economy, environment and community.
A new Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is likely to look a lot like the Failed Fifteen-Year Eradication Program
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will pin all its hope for a new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program on helicopter mounted remote-sensing surveillance technology to detect fire ant nests: the same silver-bullet that Biosecurity Queensland said would save the program in 2008. It didn’t.
The truth is the remote-sensing surveillance technology wasted millions of dollars of public money, found very few nests and was decommissioned in 2015. Scientists warned Biosecurity Queensland against this untried and untested technology in 2009. They said the technology would identify all sorts of things as nests (warm rocks and lumps of manure) but miss immature fire ant nests that were still underground. That is exactly what happened. Fire ants spread faster than the technology could find them and the size of the infestation tripled. When it was decommissioned in 2015, having wasted millions, the remote-sensing surveillance technology had detected a total of 38 nests and the modellers said there was nothing more they could do to improve the technology’s detection rate.
While waiting and hoping for an improved version of the remote sensing surveillance technology to appear, it is likely that Biosecurity Queensland might consider using some of the $900,000 from Queensland Treasury to re-create a ground force of hundreds of field staff to find and kill fire ants: as happened in 2001. In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the window of opportunity to eradicate fire ants was small and the quickest, cheapest, most effective method of getting rid of fire ants was to bait them by air: get the helicopters out to spread low toxic bait (the same used for mosquito control and in dog flea collars) over the whole area of the infestation. And the Commonwealth government agreed. But in 2001, Queensland’s unemployment rate was >8% and Premier Beattie was promising ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ So, instead of quick, effective, and cheap aerial baiting, Biosecurity Queensland created a jobs program for over 400 people. It was an expensive disaster. Incompetent managers alienated the workforce that quickly became unionised. Program auditors said the biggest drain on the efficiency of the program was the ground force. It took Biosecurity Queensland two years to get the first round of bait down, and even then, with lots of holes in it. So, fire ants kept spreading. In 2017, Queensland’s unemployment rate is 6.7% and the worst in the nation. The Queensland Premier is again, promising ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’. So, it is likely Biosecurity Queensland will repeat the disaster of the past and create another jobs program for Queensland’s unemployed. And because it will not create enough jobs, it is unlikely that Biosecurity Queensland will accept sound scientific advice to bait the whole infestation by air.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim that is has an effective treatment program. The truth is, almost since the beginning, fire ants have been re-infesting supposedly treated properties and fire ants continue to spread. Several science reviews have asked Biosecurity Queensland for evidence that the baits work and evidence that direct nest injections do not actually spread fire ants. Biosecurity Queensland is yet to provide that evidence.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland’s Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program will ask for more money to fix the Fire Ant Management System: the program’s information system. The truth is, National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program does not have and has never had a functioning data base. It was a milestone set by the Ministerial Council in 2001, but it never happened. Program reviewers and auditors started complaining about Biosecurity Queensland’s lack of any performance data in 2002, and were still complaining in 2015. In 2012, a review team put in a bid to re-develop the fire ant program information system. The reviewers said the information system had cost $5.8m to date: not including hardware, other software, licensing, infrastructure or communication costs. The reviewers complained that the information system was never intended to be as complex and as large it is: with over 22m records. The reviewers said that the data base was fragile, its performance was erratic and, its ability to provide basic functions was questionable. The reviewers estimated that it would cost $1.2m over 3 years to re-develop the information systems. It never happened. In 2015, Biosecurity Queensland reported that the information system was still under development.
It is unlikely that Biosecurity Queensland’s new Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program will include a program of ‘aggressive containment’ to stop the residents and businesses from carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in fire ant friendly materials like soil, turf, mulch, hay, composts and potted plants: even though this is the main cause of fire ants spreading. In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said that if we wanted to eradicate fire ants, we had to stop them spreading and recommended a program of ‘aggressive containment’: that meant teams of community engagement officers to educate the public about moving fire ant friendly materials and teams of inspectors to check that businesses that deal with fire ant friendly materials comply with fire ant movement legislation. Biosecurity Queensland didn’t then and is unlikely to do so now. Instead Biosecurity Queensland will claim that it is stopping the spread of fire ants with new legislation that creates a General Biosecurity Obligation: an obligation on all people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones to ensure they don’t spread fire ants in friendly materials. The truth is that many community-minded businesses and residents try to do the right thing: but many don’t. Biosecurity Queensland has no idea how many businesses dealing in fire ant friendly material are operating in biosecurity zones or what they are doing. And because there has only ever been one prosecution of a business moving fire ant friendly material, there is very little incentive for some businesses to take their biosecurity responsibility seriously. So, fire ants continue to spread.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim it can eradicate fire ant because of its innovative use of technologies: detection dogs, habitat modelling, genetic analysis and community engagement.
While the odour detection dogs put their noses on the line for the program, the truth is they are expensive to train and maintain and can cover only a couple of hectares a day. They can have only limited use in an infestation that is now over 400,000ha.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim that the use of habitat modelling has enable the program to effectively target its surveillance effort towards open, disturbed land that fire ants like. The truth is the 2009 science review panel cautioned Biosecurity Queensland against relying on such a model, warning that fire ant can nest almost anywhere, which they did and so they spread.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim that its use of genetic analysis is a valuable tool for determining the source of a new infestation, whether it was caused by natural spread or human-assisted movement, to provide evidence of breaches of movement controls. The truth is it is difficult to determine the parentage and source of the polygyne form of fire ants that dominate the infestation in south east Queensland. And, given that any new infestation found >10km from the nearest infestation is likely to be the result of human-assisted movement, it would be wiser to invest in more biosecurity inspectors to under-take trace back analysis to determine the source of the infestation and to prosecute anyone breaching fire ant movement legislation.
It is likely that Biosecurity Queensland will claim that it has an effective community engagement program. It is true that the program has benefited from significant public support from the very beginning and this continues. 70% of detections have been made by the public. And while a 2015 review found that 95% of people in Brisbane have an awareness of fire ants, the review also found that only 56.2% of the public think that fire ants are still a problem. The truth is, Biosecurity Queensland tells the public that it has eradicated two incursions of fire ants with no data to support that claim. If Biosecurity Queensland gives the public the false impression that fire ants are no longer a problem the public will stop being vigilant in their search for them.
What will the new Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program cost?
The Biosecurity Capability review of 2015 criticised Biosecurity Queensland for favouring high cost, low impact activities over low cost, more strategic activities that give the public a better return on the investment of their money. And this will continue if the new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program includes:
It is unlikely that Biosecurity Queensland’s new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program will recommend low cost, high impact activities like:
The only way to get a new and effective Ten-Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is to have new and effective managers running it