Writings: Heads roll in Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Fiasco: budget blow-out, chaotic management, fire ants out of control. Time for a Royal Commission.

Biosecurity Queensland has removed its long-time Operations Manager and recently appointed General Manager in a vain attempt to save the sinking ship which is the new $411.4m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program 2017-27. And they should not be the last. In 2018-19 Biosecurity blew its $38m budget in seven months on • High turn-over of contact staff • Lost bait • Wasted bait • Labour intensive, ineffective nest injections • High proportion of non-operational positions. In 2017-18 Biosecurity Queensland treated less than 50% of the area it said it would treat and abandoned spot treating persistent infestations after being swamped by thousands of reports from the public. Fire ants are now out of control: as an independent review said they have always been. Nine well-established infestations were found beyond Biosecurity Queensland’s operations in 2017-18 because Biosecurity Queensland can’t find fire ants, can’t kill fire ants and can’t stop them spreading. Time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Agriculture Ministers, all Program Directors and all Steering Committees since 2001 accountable for the waste of $500m of public money and a fire ant infestation that is out of control. 4th April 2019

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In a desperate move to save a sinking ship, Biosecurity Queensland has removed both the Fire Ant Program’s long-time Operations Manager and its recently appointed General Manager, as I suggested in October 2018.  And they shouldn’t be the last to go.

Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Fiasco goes from bad to worse.

Biosecurity Queensland blew the program’s $38m 2018-19 budget in just seven months, three months short of the end of the treatment season (September to May) on:

  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of contract staff. There is a high turn-over of contract staff, either because they get sacked or because they leave because of chaotic management. High staff turnover is a gold-mine for recruitment agencies but expensive for the program.
  • $200,000 worth of bait that went missing because Biosecurity Queensland does not have an effective data management system.
  • Throwing good bait after bad. Anything less than four applications of bait EACH year is just a waste of time, bait and lots of money.
  • Thousands of labour intensive, ineffective insecticide nest injections.
  • A high proportion of non-operational positions.

Biosecurity Queensland’s much heralded new, $411.4m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program 2017-2027 (on top of the $400m Failed Fire Ant Program from 2001-16) is an utter disaster.

Biosecurity Queensland said it would significantly increase the size of the area it treated for fire ants and the number of times it treated those areas. In 2017-18 Biosecurity Queensland said parts of the western edge of the infestation in the Lockyer Valley and the Scenic Rim regions would be treated three times and persistent infestations in Ipswich, Brisbane, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities would be spot-treated to suppress those infestations.  None of this happened.

All of the area on the western edge of the infestation targeted for treatment received one round of bait, less than half of it got two rounds of bait. None of it got three rounds of bait: wasting a whole season of time, bait and money.

Biosecurity Queensland abandoned its plan to spot treat persistent infestations in the eastern cities after being swamped by 6,700 reports from the public (80% of which were positive for fire ants) and injecting 21,500 nests.

Fire ants are now out of control: as they always have been. The review Biosecurity Queensland commissioned in 2013 said fire ants continue to advance at a steady rate south into the Gold Coast and the Scenic Rim and west into the Lockyer Valley because fire ants are always beyond the operational area of the program.

Consequently, in the last year, nine well-established infestations of fire ants were found beyond Biosecurity Queensland’s operational area in new housing estates in Bridgeman Downs in Brisbane, in Lowood and Beaudesert and Labrador on the Gold Coast and in five agricultural areas in the Lockyer Valley: three in Thornton plus infestations in Blenheim and Townson. Mostly fire ants entered those properties in loads of soil, mulch or turf but, because Biosecurity Queensland could not identify the suppliers, or, because the suppliers held Biosecurity permits, Biosecurity Queensland did not prosecute any of them for moving infested materials.

One result was forty round bales of hay from an infested property in the Lockyer Valley being sold to a property in Gowrie Little Plain on the Darling Downs and multiple smaller consignments of hay being sold from a roadside stall to destinations unknown.

Biosecurity Queensland has spent around $500m of public money over seventeen years and the fire ant infestation is out of control: instead of infesting around 40,000ha as in 2002, fire ants now infest Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities and have spread into the Sunshine Coast, Moreton Bay, Somerset, Scenic Rim and Lockyer Valley regional areas because Biosecurity Queensland cannot find fire ants, cannot kill fire ants and cannot stop them spreading. It is time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Agriculture Ministers, all Program Directors and all Steering Committees since 2001 accountable for this biosecurity disaster and this colossal waste of public money.