Writings: Biosecurity Queensland needs to tell the public the truth about the fire ant program

What Biosecurity Queensland tells the public about the 100% publicly funded National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is not fully truthful. The public is entitled to know the truth about how Biosecurity Queensland spends their money. Biosecurity Queensland spent more than $400m from 2001 to 2017 and said it had contained fire ants to south east Queensland and eradicated some. The truth is the infestation is now ten times worse and because Biosecurity Queensland doesn’t collect reliable performance data, can’t prove anything: a waste of public money. Biosecurity Queensland is now spending another $411m baiting from the western edge of the infestation and moving east to Moreton Bay and spot treating individual nests that persist in the main infestation and beyond. Likely to be another waste of public money because Biosecurity Queensland doesn’t know where the western edge of the infestation is and spot treating individual nests is one of the main reasons fire ants escape treatment and spread. A vigilant public has reported 70% of fire ant nests. To keep the public engaged, they need to be able to scrutinise how Biosecurity Queensland is spending public money.

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The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is a 100% publicly funded program.  Public support for the Program has been exceptional: 70% of new detections have been made by the public.

To keep an already vigilant public engaged, Biosecurity Queensland needs to assure the public it is spending public money wisely. But Biosecurity Queensland’s assurances on how it has spent more than $400m between 2001 and 2017 and how it will spend another $411m over the next ten years are not fully truthful. 

At a Community Information talk in late June 2018, inside the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, a Biosecurity Queensland Community Engagement Officer told a group of residents that because of the Program’s efforts over the past sixteen years, the fire ant infestation has not spread beyond south-east Queensland and some areas of infestation have been eradicated.

The truth is:

  • fire ants continue to spread, unabated, into south-east Queensland and the infestation is now more than ten times what it was in 2001.
  • suburbs that were heavily infested in 2001 remain infested, despite repeated treatments.
  • All scientific reviews, all audit reports and the Queensland Audit Office have complained that Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable performance data: meaning it has no evidence to support any claims of any success.
  • A likely waste of more than $400m of public money.

The Community Engagement Officer also told residents there is scientific evidence that it is possible to eradicate fire ants from Australia in ten years. The truth is NONE of the five scientific reviews of the Program in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2016 have said it is possible to eradicate fire ants from Australia.  When fire ants were first detected in south-east Queensland in 2001, they were very well established. Scientific advice at the time said it was too late to attempt to eradicate them. The best course of action in the national interest, they said, was to strictly contain a relatively small infestation to within south-east Queensland and to suppress and manage it.

The decision to mount an eradication program, rather than a containment program, has been a political one, not a scientific one. In 2001, then Minister Henry Palaszczuk promised that Queensland would eradicate fire ants because national cost share partners will fund an eradication program, but not a containment program. All subsequent Queensland ministers have endorsed that promise and the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has brought significant injections of funds into Queensland Treasury: but a likely waste of public money.

Finally, the Community Engagement Officer’s explained the new Ten Year Eradication Program will be an improvement on the Old Sixteen Year Eradication Program because of two main strategies:

  • A program of broadcast baiting, starting at the western edge of the infestation then rolling east to Moreton Bay. The truth is Biosecurity Queensland does not know where the western boundary is. Fire ants continue to spread: routinely appearing beyond the program’s operational area. Biosecurity Queensland’s own research found that immature, undetectable nests are always beyond the bounds of the program’s operations.
  • treating high density infestations that persist inside the main area of the infestation and spot treating those that appear outside it. The truth is, spot treating individual nests or areas of infestations is one of the main reasons why fire ants escape treatment and spread.

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is 100% publicly funded. The public cannot scrutinise the program if Biosecurity Queensland is not fully truthful in how it is spending public money.