The largest and most persistent fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland, what scientists called ‘ground zero’, is centred on the suburbs of Richlands, Wacol, Inala, Ellen Grove, Forest Lake, Darra, Goodna, Oxley and Gailes: about 10km south-west of Brisbane’s CBD. First detected in 2001, scientists said the infestation was too entrenched to eradicate. They said the cheapest, most effective response was tightly containing the infestation and repeatedly baiting every nook and cranny by air. Knowing that the Commonwealth and other States and Territory governments would not fund a containment program, only an eradication program, the Minister for Primary Industries at the time, Henry Palaszczuk, declared that Queensland would run an eradication program. And every Queensland minister for agriculture since has followed suit. The Queensland government puts in just 10% of program funding but makes 100% of the decisions on how it is spent: creating hundreds of jobs in a State with high levels of unemployment, supporting a comfortable top-heavy workforce and wasting thousands of tonnes of bait on a useless patchwork treatment program. There is no incentive for Biosecurity Queensland to eradicate fire ants. Fire ants are now out of control as the infestation spreads through most of south-east Queensland: from Moreton Bay in the east, west through to Gatton in the Lockyer Valley, south to the New South Wales border and north into the Sunshine Coast. If Biosecurity Queensland had implemented a tight containment program with repeated aerial baiting of the relatively small infestation in 2001, it is likely the infestation would be fraction of the size it is now and have cost a fraction of the $500m wasted so far. It is time for a Royal Commission to hold every Queensland Minister of Agriculture, every Fire Ant Program Director and every member of program over-sight committees since 2001 to account for this biosecurity disaster and this colossal waste of public money. 23rd April 2019
When a backyard gardener in the suburb of Richlands reported stinging ants in February 2001, she revealed the largest and most persistent fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland: centred on the suburbs of Richlands, Wacol, Inala, Ellen Grove, Forest Lake, Darra, Goodna, Oxley and Gailes about 10km south-west of Brisbane’s CBD.
Queensland government experts at the time thought the infestation was too well-entrenched to eradicate. Fire ant experts from the USA said the Wacol/Richlands infestation was as dense as anything they had seen in the USA that had been infested for decades. Some nests were a metre high. They advised conducting surveillance to determine the boundary of the infestation, tightly controlling the movement of fire ant carriers like soil and mulch out of the infested area and baiting every nook and cranny of the infestation, cheaply and effectively by air, multiple times each summer, to suppress the infestation.
But the Minister for Primary Industries at the time, Henry Palaszczuk, rejected sound scientific advice and announced ‘a long-term campaign to eradicate this pest’ because he knew the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments would fund an eradication program, but not one to simply contain the infestation within Queensland. And he knew the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments would contribute 90% of the funding and Queensland would put in only 10%, but make 100% of decisions on how it was spent.
At a time of high unemployment in Queensland, Minister Palaszczuk decided to use national funding for an eradication program to create jobs for four hundred unskilled workers: many from his own electorate. And to remove any doubt the program was an eradication program and not a containment program, he allowed businesses that dealt in fire ant carriers like soil and mulch to manage their risk of spreading fire ants. With the declaration, ‘If we eradicate fire ants we won’t need to contain them,’ the large team of biosecurity inspectors who worked to help high risk businesses mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants was virtually disbanded.
By 2003, the folly of the Minister Palaszczuk’s decision was clear: the ground-force was the greatest drag on the efficiency of the program. The program auditor said ‘The existing workforce has proven extremely difficult and costly to manage…… did not select the most suitable candidates…. there are variable rates and quality of effort across the program and a high rate of disciplinary incidents.’ And the independent scientific review of 2004 said ‘We are concerned that despite multiple treatments, fire ants are still surviving near ‘ground-zero’ of the Richlands/Wacol infestation.’
By 2017-18, nothing had changed. The plan for ‘ground zero’ under the new $411m Ten Year Eradication Program was to spot treat persistent infestations while the focus of the ten-year plan was on the western edge in the Lockyer Valley. Another disaster! Biosecurity Queensland abandoned spot treatments after just six months because they had been swamped with 6,700 reports from the public and had injected 21,500 nests already.
After eighteen years and $500m of public money, ‘ground zero’ is still infested and so are most of Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities as well as significant parts of the Lockyer Valley, Scenic Rim, Somerset and Moreton Bay regional areas: infesting farms, housing and industrial estates, schools and educational institutions, sporting facilities, public parks and footpaths: putting the public, our environment and our economy at serious risk.
If Biosecurity Queensland had implemented the tight containment regime US fire ant experts had recommended in 2001 and comprehensively baited the relatively small infestation every year by air, it is likely the infestation would be fraction of the size it is now and have cost a fraction of the $500m wasted so far.
Every Queensland Minister for Agriculture since Minister Palaszczuk has followed suit: telling the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments that Biosecurity Queensland is eradicating fire ants to keep the money coming into Queensland. There is no incentive for Biosecurity Queensland to eradicate fire ants while the Queensland government uses national funding to create hundreds of jobs in a State with a high unemployment rate, to support a comfortable top-heavy work-force and to waste thousands of tonnes of bait on a useless patchwork treatment program.
It is time for a Royal Commission to hold every Queensland Minister for Agriculture, every Fire Ant Program Director and every member of the program’s over-sight committees since 2001 to account for this biosecurity disaster and this colossal waste of public money.