A key strategy of Biosecurity Queensland’s new $411m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is to foster collaboration with the public. The General Manager of the Fire Ant Program came to a Community Forum in Gatton, in the Lockyer Valley, on the evening of 5th February with the clear intention of shutting down any criticism of the Program with his ‘divide and conquer’ meeting format. About thirty residents attended the meeting. I attended at the invitation of the State member for Lockyer. The General Manager told the forum he would deliver the Program’s usual Powerpoint spiel, but take no questions. People could then direct their questions to individual experts, in small groups, separated from each other, at the back of the room: with him, well clear of any questions. Almost none of what the General Manager told the Forum was true. Five scientific reviews, three audit reports, a Biosecurity Capability review and the Queensland Audit Office have all said Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data: meaning Biosecurity Queensland has no evidence to support any claims of success. Nevertheless, the General Manager told the Forum the program had contained the spread of fire ants, its treatment regime worked, it had cleared three Australian ports of fire ants and the first year of the new Ten Year Program was a success. None of those claims is true. The General Manager then tried to implement his ‘divide and conquer’ format. When he told community members they could direct questions to experts, in small groups, at the back of the room, Lockyer Valley folk wouldn’t have it. They said ‘We are intelligent. We want to hear all the questions and all the answers.’ Which they did. Most of the residents’ questions and complaints were the same sort of questions and complaints residents in fire ant infested areas have been making for years: issues that Biosecurity Queensland has still not addressed. There is no scientific evidence it is possible to eradicate fire ants from south-east Queensland. Scientific advice has always been for a tight containment program. The incentive is for the Queensland government to keep promising to eradicate fire ants to keep accessing Commonwealth funds. It is time for a competent agency to take over the running of the fire ant program and for a Royal Commission to examine how Biosecurity Queensland wasted $500m of public money, saw the infestation get ten times worse and result in more public harm than public good. 7th February 2019 .
A Key Strategy of Biosecurity Queensland’s new $411.4m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Plan (2017-2027) is Collaboration: ‘The program relies on the community to be vigilant in searching for and reporting suspected fire ants and program wants to develop collaborative arrangements with landowners.’
The General Manager of the fire ant program came to Community Forum in Gatton, in the Lockyer Valley on 5th February with a clear intention to ‘divide and conquer’ the Forum: to shut down any criticism of the Program or Biosecurity Queensland. Lockyer Valley folk didn’t stand for it.
Residents of the Lockyer Valley asked their State member, Mr Jim McDonald, to call a meeting with Biosecurity Queensland so they could make their complaints about the operation of the program in the Valley. He arranged for a Community Forum to be held in the Gatton Shire Hall at 6pm on Tuesday 5th February. He also invited me, a well-known critic of the Fire Ant Program, to attend. About thirty Lockyer residents came to the Forum. A contingent of about six Biosecurity Queensland officers came: headed up by the program’s General Manager and Director.
The General Manager told community members how the Forum would be run. He would deliver the Program’s usual Powerpoint spiel: but take no questions. People could then ask questions, of individual program experts, in small groups, separated from each other, at the back of the room: keeping him well clear of any questions. As an organisation psychologist, I have run a lot of community meetings and I know how to run one to foster collaboration. The purpose of the General Manager’s format was clearly to ‘divide and conquer’ the meeting to shut down any criticism of the program and Biosecurity Queensland.
I challenged the General Manager during his presentation because he was not telling the people of the Lockyer the truth about the program. He tried very hard to shut me down, but I managed to tell the Forum some basic truths about the program before he fully shut me down. Here is what the General Manager told the Community Forum and the truth of what he said:
Fire ants are a serious threat. True.
The program has contained the spread of fire ants. Without the program, fire ants would now be infesting an area between Wollongong to Mackay. Not true. Early on, the program disbanded its team of biosecurity officers who controlled the movement of fire ant carriers like soil and mulch. Five scientific reviews, three audit reports, a 2015 Biosecurity Capability review and the Queensland Audit Office in 2017 have all said Biosecurity Queensland does not collect reliable and consistent performance data. Biosecurity Queensland has no data to support any claims of success. The fact is, fire ants continue to spread faster than they are being found and the infestation is now ten times worse than when it was discovered in 2001.
Fire ants are now infesting dozens of new housing estates in south-eat Queensland because fire ants are attracted to disturbed soil. Partially true. Fire ants do prefer to build nests in disturbed soil, but they are moving into new housing estates because Biosecurity Queensland disbanded its team of biosecurity officers who controlled the movement of fire ant carriers like soil and mulch around south-east Queensland.
The program’s treatment regime of baits containing insect growth regulators plus direct nest injections is effective. Not true. The program does not collect consistent and reliable performance data on its operations. The original plan for the program was for four applications of bait, per season, for three consecutive years: two or three applications of bait, in total, is throwing good bait after bad. United States data on nest injections shows the practice is likely to cause nests to split and spread. The fact is, fire ants continue re-infest treated areas.
The ports of Brisbane, Gladstone and Sydney have been cleared of fire ants. Not true. Since 2004, the program has been told to develop a post-treatment validation protocol to support any claims an area has been made fire ant free. The 2016 review showed the program still does not have one. The truth is, the program does not collect reliable and consistent performance data and has no evidence to support such claims.
The first year of the new Ten Year, $411m Eradication Program, was a success. Not true. The plan for 2017-18 was for three applications of bait over 84,000ha on the western edge of the infestation and to spot treat persistent infestations in the east. The facts are, the program managed only one and half rounds of bait over the west (effectively wasting it) and abandoned spot treatments in the east because the program was overwhelmed by reports from the public. The truth is, the program wasted its $38m budgeted for the year and fire ants were found, yet again, west, and beyond the program’s operations.
The program is investing in new technologies like genetic analysis of fire ants and helicopter surveillance for fire ant nests. True, but of no value. Old fashioned trace-backs are a more effective and less expensive method of identifying the origin of new infestations than genetic analysis. The helicopter surveillance trials between 2010 and 2015 produced thousands of rocks and cow pats, but just 38 nests. During the trial, the infestation tripled from 100,000ha to 300,000ha. The robotics centre at Sydney University said in 2017 the technology was still not able to identify fire ant nests in difficult terrain.
At the end of his Presentation, the General Manager tried to implement his ‘divide and conquer’ format of splitting the group of thirty into small groups to ask their questions of experts at the back of the room and to keep himself clear of questions. Lockyer Valley folk would have nothing to do with it. They said ‘Whose format is this?’ The General Manager said ‘Mine’. The Community said, ‘We are intelligent people and we want to hear all the questions and all the answers.’ So, they did.
The General Manager and the Director then back-tracked and said they were happy to hear about the problems people were having so they could fix them. They were the same problems residents in fire ant infested areas have complained about for years that are still not fixed.
Residents complained that:
Biosecurity Queensland does not always treat properties when they say are going to. If a producer has to stop watering a crop so the area can be baited, but baiting does not happen, the crop can be without water for many days. The farmer would have to bear the cost of any crop lost.
Buffer zones for aerial baiting are useless on small acreage lots. The result is bait going onto the roofs of people’s homes and tainting their household water tanks. Residents have to bear the costs of cleaning out their tanks.
Field staff are haphazard in how they spread bait and do not leave data sheets about the safety of the bait.
They wanted to know if police and other safety checks are conducted on the many new contract staff that have recently come onto the program. They wanted to know if their properties and children were safe.
The requirements for hay and fodder producers to get their product off the ground in 24 hours is difficult and product from a fire ant infested area can be discriminated against in the market.
Biosecurity Queensland vehicles moving between properties could spread weeds or other pests and diseases.
The truth is, there is not a scrap of scientific evidence that is possible to eradicate fire ants from south-east Queensland. In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation was as bad as anything they had ever seen and it was well entrenched. There were fields with dozens of nests, some half a meter high. Their advice was to draw a line around the fire ant infestation, keep fire ants inside the line and intensively bait that area to suppress the population of ants. That was feasible when the infestation was about 40,000ha. If we had done that in 2001, it is likely the fire ant infestation would be a fraction of the >400,000ha it is now and cost a fraction of the $500m wasted so far.
The decision to mount an eradication program has always been a political one. The Commonwealth and other States and Territory governments will fund an eradication program, but not a containment program. In 2001, the Queensland government declared ‘We will eradicate fire ants’ The Queensland Government keeps ‘promising’ to eradicate fire ants to keep the money coming. Queensland puts in 10% of funding and makes 100% of spending decisions. For an investment of $50m over the past seventeen years, Queensland Treasury has received $450m return. There is no financial incentive for the Queensland government to eradicate fire ants.
Biosecurity Queensland has now wasted $500m of public money and the infestation is ten times worse than in 2001. Fire ants now infest Gold Coast, Redland Bay, Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan cites and Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast, Scenic Rim, Somerset and Lockyer Valley regions and are spreading out of control. Sooner rather than later, the Commonwealth and other States and Territory governments will stop dumping money into Queensland.
The Queensland government will then dump the fire ant problem onto the public. Biosecurity Queensland is already doing that. They rely on the public to do fire ant surveillance. 70% of new detections are made by the public. They disbanded their large team of biosecurity inspectors and made the public responsible for not spreading fire ants. Biosecurity Queensland is now, again, trying to dump fire ant treatments onto the public. A previous government tried that in 2012 because, as usual, the program could not keep up with the hundreds of reports of fire ant nests coming from the public. That attempt was quickly abandoned because of concerns about who pays for the bait and the risk of residents being seriously stung. Will it this time?
In 2016, the Queensland Biosecurity Capability review said Biosecurity Queensland does not have the capacity to meet current or future biosecurity needs. It is time for a competent agency to take over the fire ant program.
Biosecurity Queensland has wasted $500m of public money over seventeen and the fire ant infestation is now at least ten times worse. It is time for a Royal Commission into a colossal waste of public money that has resulted in no public good and a lot of public harm.