Writings: NWS govt demands more assurance on potted plants from accredited nurseries in Fire Ant Zones to access markets. Biosecurity Qld has to audit all nurseries with a few auditors by 1st Feb 2021. Too little too late. Time for a Royal Commission.

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In September 2020, the New South Wales government informed the Queensland Department of Agriculture it is no longer accepting ICA-40 accreditation as a stand-alone assurance from producers of potted plants, operating inside the vast Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, to access to markets in New South Wales.

In November 2020, the New South Wales government informed the Queensland Department of Agriculture that all ICA-40 accredited producers of potted plants, operating inside the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, also have to demonstrate they meet the requirements of section 71 (2 or 3) of the Biosecurity Regulation 2016. Those sections specify how a producer must store a fire ant carrier to prevent it from becoming infested, or how a producer must treat a storage area to prevent the carrier becoming infested and keeps records of those treatments.   And they have until 1st February 2021 to comply.

On 5th November 2020, Biosecurity Queensland informed all ICA-40 accredited producers of potted plants operating inside the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, the Fire Ant Program would be conducting audits to determine their compliance with the Regulation and provide them with a ‘Statement of Compliance.’   

They will have to get their skates on, they don’t have many auditors.

Biosecurity Queensland no longer reports how many Compliance Officers it actually employs. In 2001 when the fire ant infestation covered about 40,000ha, about twenty qualified biosecurity inspectors identified high risk businesses operating inside the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, worked with them to develop Approved Risk Management Plans, regularly audited those plans and prosecuted those who did not comply.

Now, with the infestation over 600,000ha, Biosecurity Queensland has dumped the responsibility to control the spread of fire ant onto the public with a General Biosecurity Obligation, disbanded its large team of biosecurity inspectors and abandoned the use of Approved Risk Management Plans.

At a community and industry stakeholder forum in May 2018, industry reps said they were happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation, but they wanted Biosecurity Queensland to accept its own by employing more compliance officers, re-introducing Approved Risk Management Plans, approving land development applications, controlling the movement of fire ant carriers in and out of biosecurity zones and keeping the maps and information, especially about new infestations, up to date.

Biosecurity Queensland has done none of these things.

 In December 2019, the Efficiency and Effectiveness Review of the fire ant program was extremely critical of Biosecurity Queensland’s ability to contain the continuing spread of fire ants with an under-resourced and ineffective compliance program.  The reviewer reported the program had just thirteen compliance officers and five vacancies. They conducted just 912 compliance checks, in the previous year, of the movement of all sorts of fire ant carriers, not just potted plants, to outside the program’s operational area.  30% of non-compliant cases were not solved within a month and the program had an unacceptable practice of declaring some breaches as minor. The program was only starting to issue infringement notices and had, to date, not issued any prosecution notices.

This is evidence that the New South Wales government, the second biggest funder of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program after the Commonwealth, is losing confidence in Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Fiasco.

Time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Minsters for Agriculture and all program oversight committees since 2001 to account for wasting $600m and for a fire ant infestation that blew out of 40,000ha to over 600,000ha in nineteen years.