Writings: Fire Ant Fiasco: ignore the science, waste public money, dump the consequences back onto the public

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, run by the Queensland Government with national funding, is a fiasco. The Queensland Government, from both sides of politics, has spent $350m of public money over fifteen years on hundreds of staff and thousands of tonnes of bait. The fire ant infestation is now ten times worse than it was when they were first detected around Brisbane Queensland in 2001. The fire ant program is a familiar story of of politicians ignoring scientific advice, of wasting public money, of incompetent but compliant managers, of covering-up the facts and then dumping the resulting mess back onto a public that has already paid for an eradication program.

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Fire ants are an aggressive super-pest that will cause serious damage to Australia’s environment, economy and out-door lifestyle. Fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation around Brisbane in 2001 was as bad as anything they had seen in the USA. They said Queensland had a narrow opportunity of eradicating fire ants if the whole infestation was baited quickly and intensively by air and if a program of aggressive containment was implemented to stop people carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in loads of soil or mulch or pot plants.  The ALP Beattie Government of 2001 ignored that advice.

Unemployment in Queensland was high in 2001 when the Beattie government won an election on the promise of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ Instead of implementing a quick, efficient, relatively cheap aerial baiting program the government used national funding to create a slow, inefficient and expensive work force of four hundred field assistants. Instead of recruiting a substantial team of biosecurity inspectors to assist and regulate businesses who moved fire ant carriers like soil or mulch, the government allowed businesses to self-manage their risk of spreading fire ants. Not surprisingly, fire ants continued to spread.

By the time Newman LNP government came into power in 2012, the fire ant infestation was up from 28,000ha in 2001 to over 100,000ha. Before the election, the LNP promised to ‘beef-up biosecurity.’ Once in power, they cut funds to rely on helicopter surveillance to look for fire ant nests.  The independent scientific review of the program in 2009 had cautioned against using this untested technology because there was a good chance it would identify all sorts of things as fire ant nests and miss actual nests. The LNP government ignored this advice and that was exactly what happened. By May 2015, after wasting millions of dollars in developing helicopter surveillance, the technology had found only eleven nests while the whole fire ant infestation tripled in size from 100,000ha to 300,000ha.

Managing a large scale program, initially with a large blue collar workforce, was beyond the capability of managers in the Department of Primary Industries, now the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. But departmental managers complied with unscientific government decisions and produced reports that over-stated the success of the program and under-reported the serious problems threatening the program.

The Queensland government continues to claim it can eradicate fire ants when four independent scientific reviews of the program have said it is not.  And it appears the fifth independent scientific review of the program, commissioned by the Commonwealth government in 2015, agrees. The Commonwealth government considered the review’s report in May this year, but has yet to decide on the program’s future. The fiasco which is the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is now in limbo.

After ignoring scientific advice, wasting public money and making the fire ant infestation ten times worse than it was at the beginning, the Queensland government is now dumping the whole mess back onto the public that paid for an eradication program. The new Biosecurity Act 2014 which came into effect on 1 July 2016 imposes a legal responsibility on all residents and businesses to ensure they don’t spread fire ants: or pay a penalty. The Act also allows the government to appoint private biosecurity contractors to deliver the services the government failed to provide with $350m of public money and charge the public, again, for those services.

I suggest it is time for the Queensland government to recruit enough biosecurity inspectors to implement the sort of aggressive containment program that the US fire ant experts had recommended in 2001, to stop businesses and residents carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants.

I suggest it is time for all Ministers who have been responsible for administering the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to justify the decisions they made that were contrary to scientific advice and to account for how they spent $350m of public money in the public good.