The first year of Biosecurity Queensland’s new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program, 2017-18, was a disaster. Only one round of bait instead of three over most of the area targeted for treatment: a waste of $38m. The second year of the Ten Year Program, 2018-19, is worse. The program has blown its budget of $41m after just seven months: three months short of the end of the treatment season and with no data on how much it has actually treated. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review said in 2015 that Biosecurity Queensland’s use of resources like staff time and money is conflicted and inconsistent and does not optimise the use of its resources. Nothing has changed. Biosecurity Queensland wastes money on a fragmented treatment regime, injecting insecticide directly into nests that likely causes the nests to split and spread, helicopter surveillance for fire ant nests that found only 38 nests in five years, high staff turnover, and a lot of highly paid non-operational positions. The New South Wales government, the program’s second largest funder, will pull funds from the program when fire ants cross the border into NSW. They’re 35km away from it now and moving in that direction. When that happens, or before, it will be time for a Royal Commission into how Biosecurity Queensland has wasted around $500m of public money over seventeen years and fire ants continue to spread, out of control. 15 February 2019
In July 2017, the Australian Agricultural Ministers agreed to fund a new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program, at the cost of $411.4m, on top of the $400m they had given Biosecurity Queensland between 2001 and 2016 to eradicate fire ants.
The new plan involves a rolling strategy of intensive aerial baiting: starting at the western edge of the infestation and rolling east over subsequent years. At the same time, persistent nests in Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan and Gold Coast cities in the east of the infestation are to be suppressed with spot treatments. The first year of the new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program was a disaster. Biosecurity Queensland managed to apply only one round of bait over most of the area it planned to treat three times in 2017-18, and abandoned spot treatments of persistent nests because the program was swamped with reports of nests from the public. The first year of the new Ten Year Eradication Plan was a total disaster and wasted $38m of public money.
The second year of Biosecurity Queensland’s new Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program is even worse. Biosecurity Queensland has blown its budget of $41m for 2018-19 in just seven months: well short of the end of the treatment season in May 2019. And Biosecurity Queensland does not know what areas have been treated because it does not collect reliable performance data: there are discrepancies between how much bait has been used and the areas treated.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant fiasco. In 2015, the Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review said ‘Biosecurity Queensland did not collect …performance information and analyse it to evaluate the uses of resources like staff time and funds…. Biosecurity Queensland’s decision-making on the use of resources is conflicted and inconsistent and means that Biosecurity Queensland does not optimise the use of its resources.’ In 2019, nothing has changed.
Biosecurity Queensland wastes most money on its fragmented baiting regime. Scientific advice has always been for:
There is no scientific evidence that anything less is effective and anything less is throwing good bait after bad and good money after bad.
Biosecurity Queensland wastes money on injecting insecticide directly into nests. The only scientific data on the practice is that it likely causes nests to split and spread: making the problem worse.
Biosecurity Queensland wastes money on helicopter surveillance for fire ant nests. The 2010-15 trial of the technology found thousands of rock and cow pats, but only 38 nests. During that time, the infestation tripled from 100,000ha to 300,000ha.
Biosecurity Queensland wastes money on contract staff. Chaotic management results in a high turnover of contract staff: a gold mine for recruitment agencies, but a huge waste of public money.
Biosecurity Queensland wastes money on a large number of highly paid, non-operational staff who consume 40% of the budget.
In August 2018, the Deputy Director General of New South Wales Biosecurity and Food Safety wrote to me on behalf of NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, to say ‘The NSW government considers …a comprehensive control program in Queensland…is preferable to the alternative, which would be to manage the impacts of the species once it reaches the NSW border or crosses into Northern NSW.’
Fire ants are now close to the New South Wales border and moving in that direction. By June 2018, all the northern suburbs of the Gold Coast were infested. By the end of 2018, they had moved south into Hope Island, Labrador and Helensvale. The adjacent suburbs of Paradise Point, Arundel, Molendinar, Biggera Waters, Parkwood and Southport, are also likely to be infested. Fire ants are now just 35km from the NSW border: if they are not there, undetected, already.
If New South Wales pulls its funding from the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, that will be the end of the national program. National biosecurity programs, like the fire ant program, are funded on a ‘one in, all in’ basis. The Federal government contributes 50% of the funding, and New South Wales, the state with the biggest population, is the second biggest funder, contributing 16%. If New South Wales withdraws its funding, so too will the Federal and the other State and Territory governments.
Then, if not sooner, it will be time for a Royal Commission into how Biosecurity Queensland has wasted around $500m of public money on a fire ant infestation that is now more than ten times the size it was when they were detected in 2001 and fire ants continue to spread, out of control, as they have for seventeen years.