Writings: Queensland Government dumps the fire ant problem onto the public

Having failed to stop the spread of fire ants into 280 suburbs covering more than 350,000ha of south-east Queensland, the Queensland government is now dumping the fire ant problem onto the public. On 1 July 2016, the new Biosecurity Act 2014 came into effect. It creates a ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ which means that people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones have a legal responsible to take all reasonable precautions to ensure they don’t spread fire ants. The ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ applies to commercial growers, land owners and backyard gardeners whose work or hobbies involves moving or storing fire ant friendly materials such as soil, turf, mulch, baled hay or straw, animal manures, mining or quarry products, composts and potted plants. People moving loads of fire ant infested materials or potted plants is the number one cause of fire ants spreading so far into south-east Queensland. If people do not meet their ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’, they can be penalised.

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Most Queenslanders don’t need legislation to make them care about protecting our State from invasive pests.  The public got behind the fire ant program from the very beginning. In 2001, my team and I conducted community information sessions in all areas that were infested at that time. We explained how dangerous fire ants are and how the fire ant program was going to attack them. The people who came to those meetings gave the program their overwhelming support.

Community support of the fire ant program has continued and has been crucial. While the Queensland Government wasted time and money fiddling around with the next-to-useless helicopter fire ant surveillance program, the public found hundred more fire ant nests. The public has been responsible for 70% of all new detections.

Businesses such as developers, primary producers, landscapers, pool builders, turf, mulch and compost producers, earth movers, nurseries and soil merchants can be affected by the fire ant infestation and the program to fight them.   From the beginning, many community-minded businesses developed Approved Risk Management Plans to minimise their risk of spreading fire ants. Agricultural industry groups already advocate on-farm biosecurity. Industry groups who were consulted during the drafting of the new biosecurity bill were generally supportive of a ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’, but they had two serious concerns about how effective it would be.

The first was, people might not know what to do.  There is a lot to know. People have to know if they are in a fire ant biosecurity zone. They must inspect their properties for very hard to find fire ant nests while making sure they don’t get stung or disturb the nest and spread the ants. If they find nests, they will need to know if they have to apply for biosecurity permit to move fire ant friendly materials off their property, or if they have to take infested materials to a waste disposal facility, or if they have to treat it with chemicals or if they have to store it off the ground.

The second concern industry groups had about the Biosecurity Act 2014 was that legislation has not stopped the spread of fire ants so far. The Plant Protection Regulation of 2002 made it illegal to move a live fire ants or fire ant carrier from an infested property without an inspector’s approval. But, since 2002, fire ants have continued to spread and re-infest areas that had been declared fire ant free.  In 2002, fire ants infested around 28,000ha. By July 2016, they infest around 350,000ha. In the six months between August 2015 and February 2016, the number of infested suburbs jumped from 238 to 280. Fire ants turned up at the University of Queensland campus at St Lucia and the Queensland University of Technology campus at Gardens Point.

And fire ants are re-infesting areas that had been declared fire ant free. In 2001, there were two separate fire ant infestations: one centred around the south-west suburbs of Brisbane and one centred on Brisbane’s bay-side north-eastern suburbs.  The bay-side infestation included the Port of Brisbane, the Brisbane Airport at Eagle Farm and the suburbs of Pinkenba, Lytton, Nudgee and Nudgee Beach.  Those areas dropped off Fire Ant Restriction maps years ago as they were declared fire ant free. All those suburbs are now back on the ‘Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone’ map of 1 July 2016.

The Plant Protection Regulation of 2002 failed to stop the spread of fire ants because the Queensland Government employed so few biosecurity inspectors to identify businesses that dealt in fire ant friendly materials, develop risk management plans with them and audit those plans. With too few inspectors and only ever one prosecution of a business moving fire ant friendly material, there is very little incentive for businesses or residents to take their biosecurity responsibility seriously.  In July 2016, the Queensland Government still employs only a handful of biosecurity inspectors. But if a business requires a permit to move fire ant friendly materials from their property, the government says it can take up to five working days for an inspector to issue that permit. What are the chances that many businesses will wait that long?

The new Biosecurity Act 2014 is likely to be as ineffective in stopping the spread of fire ants as the Plant Regulation of 2002 was: except that there is a sting in the tail of the new Act. The Plant Regulation 2002 failed to stop the spread of fire ants because there were so few biosecurity inspectors. The new Act allows the chief executive of the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries to appoint private providers as bio-security inspectors, accreditors and auditors and allows those providers to charge the public for providing the services that the Queensland Government failed to provide with $350m of public money.

People and organisations living and working in fire ant biosecurity zones must meet their ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ if their work or hobbies involves moving or storing fire ant friendly material.  If they don’t, they can be penalised. Or they can pay private biosecurity consultants to make sure they meet their obligation. Either way, they get stung.