Writings: Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant program is a Commonwealth funded jobs program for Queenslanders: not an incentive to eradicate fire ants. Steering Committee responsible.

Biosecurity Queensland pays for 10% to the National Fire Ant Program but makes 100% of spending decisions: mostly on jobs for Queenslanders: not an incentive to eradicate fire ants. The Program Steering Committee is 100% responsible for Biosecurity Queensland using public money to create jobs for Queenslanders. Time for a Parliamentary Inquiry into Steering Committee’s governance and Biosecurity Queensland’s management of the fire ant program. 13th January 2019

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2001: Creating a jobs program

In 2001 when fire ants were first detected in south east Queensland, fire ant experts from the Unites States said the infestation was too well entrenched to eradicate and advised tightly containing the infestation and baiting it repeatedly and intensively, to suppress it. And the quickest, most effective and cheapest way to do that was by helicopter.

In 2001, the unemployment rate in Queensland was 8.5% and the Beattie government had just won a landslide election on the promise of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ Henry Palaszczuk was the Minister for Agriculture at the time and the infestation was centred in his electorate. He saw the fire ant program as an opportunity to create jobs.  Knowing the Commonwealth government would fund an eradication program, but not a containment program, he rejected scientific advice to tightly contain the infestation and declared that Queensland would eradicate fire ants; not with cheap helicopters, but with an expensive ground force of 400 unemployed people: many from his own electorate of Inala.

He said, ‘The proposed eradication campaign will present strong employment opportunities for unskilled persons willing to be trained as Fire Ant surveillance or treatment staff. It is estimated that approximately 400 such staff will be required in the first three years of the campaign. A further 100 technical, scientific and administrative staff will be needed to support the campaign.’

This was the moment Queensland and Australia lost any chance of containing the spread of fire ants, let alone eradicating them. In 2003, Auditor Deloitte said ‘The existing workforce has proven extremely difficult and costly to manage…… the recruitment process did not select the most suitable candidates…. staff attendance rates are poor, there are variable rates and quality of effort across the program and a high rate of disciplinary incidents.’

By 2016, Biosecurity Queensland had wasted more than $400m of public money from the Commonwealth and other States and Territories and the fire ant infestation was ten times worse than it was in 2001: from 40,000ha up to 400,000ha and spreading out of control.

In 2017:  Creating another jobs program

In 2017, the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments agreed to continue to fund an eradication effort for another ten years (2017-27), at a cost of another $411.4m. The focus on the new plan was on repeated and intensive baiting of the infestation by helicopter.

The plan for 2017-18 was to bait 84,000ha of the western edge of the infestation (parts of the Lockyer Valley and Scenic Rim regional areas and parts of Ipswich City) three times during the treatment season, at the cost of another $38m, with just 36 field staff and a total of 127 staff. It was a disaster. Most of the targeted treatment areas received only one round of bait and the program was overwhelmed by reports from the public of persistent nests in the rest of the infestation. The program’s own research shows it takes five rounds of bait in a season to kill fire ants. One or two rounds of bait during a season is just a waste of expensive bait, helicopter time and field staff time.

By 2018, Queensland’s unemployment rate was 6.3%, the highest in the country and program staff numbers had blown out to 225: nearly 100 over plan and over budget.

By January 2019, program depots at Berrinba and Laidley are bulging with another 160 contracted field assistants: getting staff levels close to 400 again, and adding another $9.6m to the budget.  

At the same time, 40% of the program’s budget is consumed by fifty-five well-paid, non-operational positions: Directors, Administration and Procurement Officers, WH&S Officers, HR Officers, Policy and Governance Officers, Planning and QA Officers, Ramp-Up Officers and a large scientific team criticised for an ad hoc program that does not evaluate the effectiveness of the program’s treatment and surveillance efforts.

There is no incentive for Biosecurity Queensland to eradicate fire ants when the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments pay for jobs programs for Queenslanders.   

The National Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee, made up of representatives from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and with an independent Chair, is 100% responsible for Biosecurity Queensland using public money to create jobs for Queenslanders: a disincentive for eradicating fire ants.

It is time for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Steering Committee’s governance and Biosecurity Queensland’s management of the National Fire Ant Eradication Program