October 2016 Fire ants now infest more than 400,000ha of south-east Queensland: an area more than ten times what it was when they were first found around Brisbane in 2001. The Queensland Government has spent $350m of public funds over fourteen years and fire ants are now out of control. Fire ants spread most rapidly when people carelessly or accidentally move them in loads of fire ant friendly materials like soil, mulch, animal manures, hay, potted plants or turf. In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the Queensland Government needed to implement a program of ‘aggressive containment’ to stop people spreading fire ants. The Queensland Government never did. Instead, the Queensland Government started its futile chase after the last fire ant to eradicate it because an eradication program attracts Commonwealth funding. This came at the expense of containing the spread of fire ants which the Commonwealth Government does not fund. The Queensland Government consistently failed to implement its own legislation to stop the spread of fire ants. Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Containment Program consists of a handful of biosecurity inspectors and a few road signs: not competent containment or ‘aggressive containment’. All Queensland Ministers who have been responsible for the fire ant program need to be held to account for fire ants now being out of control.
In 2001 fire ant experts from the USA told the Queensland Government that any fire ant program needed to stop people spreading fire ants before they could be treated with an ‘aggressive containment’ program. The Queensland Government never did.
In 2002, Queensland legislation made it an offence to move fire ants or things infested with fire ants. This could mean additional costs for industries such as developers, pool builders, nursery and landscaper suppliers that dealt in fire ant friendly materials: costs in treating their properties for fire ants or for moving infested materials to a waste disposal facility. With the threat that business and property owners might not report fire ant infestations if it was going to cost them money, industries pressured the Queensland Government into allowing them to self-manage their risk of spreading fire ants. The Queensland Government caved in to industry pressure and wound back its own containment program.
An aggressive containment program would have employed enough biosecurity inspectors to identify all the high-risk businesses within the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones, help them develop approved fire ant risk management plans to mitigate their chances of spreading fire ants and audit those plans on a regular basis. In 2002 when fire ants infested an area of around 40,000ha, there were about twenty inspectors working with businesses. Many community minded businesses adopted approved risk management plans. But even twenty inspectors were not enough to find and monitor all the high risk businesses operating in the Fire Ant Restriction Area. Even now, Biosecurity Queensland does not know how many high risk businesses are operating in Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones or what they are all doing. Obviously, some are spreading fire ants.
By July 2016 Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant containment program consisted of a mere handful of biosecurity inspectors and a few road signs. No wonder the fire ant infested area is now over 400,000ha: ten times what it was in 2002. Fire ants are out of control.
With fire ants out of control, the Queensland Government’s is pushing the responsibility and costs of containing their spread back onto the public who have already paid $350m for a fire ant program.
In July 2016, the Queensland Government replaced its earlier legislation with the Biosecurity Act 2014. The new Act obliges individuals and organisations whose activities involve the movement or storage of fire ant carriers to take all reasonable steps to ensure they do not spread fire ants. Legislation from 2002 which made it illegal to move fire ants had no effect on stopping the spread of fire ants. The Biosecurity Act 2014 is likely to be just as ineffective because you could drive a truck load of fire-ant infested soil through Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Movement Controls.
For a start, a property owner would need to know if their property was within a Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone. Biosecurity Queensland’s latest map of 1 July 2016 is already out of date. Fire ants have been found outside the map boundaries in Bracken Ridge and Brookfield. A property owner can certainly be excused for not knowing if they are in a Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone or not.
On paper, a property owner cannot move soil from inside a biosecurity zone to anywhere other than a waste disposal facility without a permit. In practice, with only a handful of biosecurity inspectors left to issue those permits, it is not likely that property owners will be willing to wait. So Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Movement Controls allow a property owner to move soil from a biosecurity zone, if they visually inspected it first (not an easy task for a novice, because fire ant nests can remain underground for many months before they appear above ground) and remove the top metre of soil immediately prior to moving the rest of the soil even though fire ant nests can be more than two meters deep.
On paper, a property owner cannot move hay, mulch, potted plants or turf from within a biosecurity zone to anywhere other than a waste disposal facility without a permit. Again, with so few biosecurity inspectors to issue permits, it is not likely property owners would be willing to wait. So Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Movement Controls allow a property owner to move such material if it has been on their property for less than 24 hours (on the assumption that fire ants don’t move that fast) or it has been treated with expensive insecticides, at the owner’s expense.
If the Queensland Government was serious about using its legislation it would have prosecuted property or businesses owners that breached it. Over the life of the fire ant program there has been only one prosecution. In February 2011, the Queensland Government decided to ‘send a strong message’ by making an example of one company. The company was fined for illegally moving of soil out of the Fire Ant Restricted Area. No fire ants were actually spread as a result of this action and no conviction was recorded against the company. If the case was intended to act as a deterrent to others it categorically failed.
It appears that the Queensland Government wants to avoid taking any business or property owner to court for breaching legislation: perhaps because a court appearance would expose the whole farce which are Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Movement Controls and the Fire Ant Program in general. With the introduction of the new Act, Biosecurity Queensland staff are being told to ‘educate the Queensland community…about their shared responsibility’ rather than prosecute them. During 2014-15, biosecurity inspectors found eight businesses within the Biosecurity Zone non-complaint with movement controls and the public reported a bulk soil supplier for moving soil from within a Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone. No one was prosecuted.
Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Movement Controls for implementing the Biosecurity Act 2014 have holes in them that a truck load of fire ant infested soil could drive through. There is no disincentive for a property or businesses owner to breach them. A handful of biosecurity inspectors and a few road signs is not even a competent containment program and certainly not the ‘aggressive containment’ program that independent scientists have repeatedly advised over the years.
All Queensland Ministers who have been responsible for the fire ant program need to be held accountable for their failure to implement the legislation they are responsible for.