Bungling by successive Queensland governments has seen the war on the red fire ant lost and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted. Dr Pam Swepson, who worked on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program from its inception in 2002 for three years, has told the QT “the war against fire ants was lost at the beginning” and continued to be lost.... Ms Swepson said it was inevitable Ipswich was infested. Joel Gould, Queensland Times, 24th November 2016
Ms Swepson worked for the Department of Primary Industries for 17 years and her role on the ant eradication program was to liaise with industry and residents impacted by the ant.
Fire ants have now invaded all but two Ipswich suburbs, are rife in the Lockyer Valley and are marching through south-east Queensland towards the NSW border.
The ants, which have killed 80 people in the US, destroyed crops and killed ground-born stock, are now out of control and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars of damage.
Ms Swepson produced reports on the program for program funders and she watched political interference and the ignoring of scientific advice cripple the program from the beginning.
In 2003 she told the Crime and Misconduct Commission about those issues.
She said successive governments since 2002 had spent $350 million in public money, both commonwealth and state, and that the infestation was now “10 times bigger than what it was in 2002”.
Entomologists regard the fire ant as one of the top six invasive species on the planet.
Ms Swepson added there had been a “total failure of Biosecurity Queensland” because it had repeatedly ignored scientific advice and that scientific reviews had shown that the program has not been on track to eradicate the fire ants since 2004/5.
She said that was contrary to government spin which had suggested all was “going well” when the opposite was in fact the case.
“I have followed the cover-up through media releases and program reports and reviews that I accessed under Right to Information processes,” Ms Swepson said.
Ms Swepson said former government ministers, of all stripes, had suggested they were “eradicating” the ants to get commonwealth funding, but they were not.
“It was short term political gain to get $350 million into Queensland at the long-term cost of fire ant infestation,” she said.
Ms Swepson said Henry Palaszczuk, who was the minister for primary industries and fisheries in 2004/05, had ignored advice from US experts about how to tackle the ants.
“They said that what you’ve got to do is aggressive containment,” she said.
“But the minister allowed industries to self-manage their risk of spreading the risk, but with all self-management it didn’t happen.”
“The Americans also said to go at it hard with aerial baiting with helicopters.”
“But Henry Palaszczuk had a ground force of 400 people spread the bait. It was a great boost to employment….but it was inefficient.”
Ms Swepson said it was inevitable Ipswich was infested.
Why should residents be worried if the current failures continue?
People can die from bites and some have gone into anaphylactic shock.
Ms Swepson said there was more to worry about.
The bigger impact is on the economy, lifestyle and agriculture – both stock and crops.
“If they get into any (animals) born on the ground they will take the eyes out of it,” Ms Swepson said.
“If you have an infested field you can’t get labourers in there because they will get stung.”
“If you have fire ants in your yard you can’t let your kids go out because they will get stung.
“If a toddler falls on a nest hundreds will run up their leg and sting simultaneously. They impact tourism and can infest sporting fields.”
Ms Swepson said Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne needed to go hard with a program of aggressive containment and aerial baiting, which every science review had asked for.
“I recommend the program be taken out of the hands of Biosecurity Queensland and put into a stand-along institution,” she said.
“Mr Byrne needs to oversee that to make sure the program gets back on track.”
LETTER: How you can eradicate fire ants
National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program
I am writing to address some of the incorrect information reported ‘March of the killer ants (QT Nov 24).
Ms Swepson’s accusations that Biosecurity Queensland has ignored scientific advice and that the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has not been on track to eradicate fire ants is ill-informed.
It is agreed fire ants are a serious threat, and are one of the most devastating invasive ant species in the world.
Eradicating fire ants will take a coordinated effort with government, residents and business owners.
The program is funded through a national cost-sharing agreement, and works to a nationally agreed response plan.
It has been reviewed 14 times, with the most recent review concluding eradication is still technically feasible, cost beneficial and in Australia’s interests.
Ms Swepson’s suggestion of containment is only a short-term strategy, but our ultimate goal is total eradication.
It is crucial south-east Queensland residents and businesses continue to report suspect fire ants to Biosecurity Queensland so that together we can work towards a fire ant free Australia.
Comment: Pam Swepson
If Mr Kent had read the science review of 2009, he would know that the reviewers said that Biosecurity Qld was not eradicating fire ants and had probably not been since 2004/05.
As program director, he would know the program has been in suppression and containment mode since 2010 and Ministerial Council will decide if it returns to eradication mode, or not, in 2017.
In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said that unless fire ants were contained they could not be eradicated. As fire ants continue to spread beyond the bounds of the Biosecurity Zone map of July 2016, it is obvious they are not yet contained and still cannot be eradicated.
Mr Kent said that two infestations of fire ants have been eradicated. But the review of Biosecurity Qld’s capability in 2015 found that it had no information system and no performance data. With no data, it is not possible to prove anything.
The latest review of the program says that it is still technically feasible to eradicate fire ants. But with Biosecurity Qld’s track record of wasting $350m of public money on a fire ant infestation that is now out of control, we have to hope that Ministerial Council takes the fire ant program away from Biosecurity Qld and gives it to a science based, competent, independent biosecurity agency.