Writings: Dr Wendy Craik, Chair Biosecurity Queensland Fire Ant Program, dumping the costs and risks of treating fire ants onto the public. Is that even legal? Time for a Royal Commission.

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In 2012, incoming LNP Minister for Agriculture, John McVeigh faced a huge backlog of reports from the public of untreated fire ant nests. His response was to push the risks and costs of treating fire ant nests onto the residents and businesses who found them.

Until then, the public had been told to report any suspicious nests to Biosecurity Queensland, NOT to treat them and to leave treating them to experts. There are real risks that people could get seriously stung trying to treat a fire ant nest, a real risk people could die from fire ant stings, real risks that inexpert treatment could make fire ant nests split and spread, making the infestation worse.

But Minister McVeigh called this precaution ‘ridiculous red-tape’ and opened up the eradication program to anyone willing to ‘give it a go’.   Faced with a backlash of questions about who would pay for the expensive bait and would people have their medical expenses compensated if they were badly stung, the 2012 ‘self-treatment program’ did not last long.

But in 2019, the fire ant infestation continued to spread out of control – up from 40,000ha in 2001 to 650,000ha. No treated areas have been declared fire ant free because fire ants continue to re-infest them and a backlog of eleven thousands reports of fire ant nests from the public remained untreated.

The program’s budget is exploding as fast as the fire ant infestation. In 2017-18, the program had an approved budget of $37.8m. In 2018-19 the approved budget was $52.9m and in 2019-20 it was up to $70.3m.

In a media statement in December 2020, Dr Wendy Craik, Chair of the Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program announced that the program is again dumping the risks and costs on treating fire ant nests onto the public. She said that residents and tenants living with fire ants could manage the pest in their own backyard, but people should still report nests to the program. She said landowners and tenants can treat the pest using fire ant bait purchased from a retailer or pest chemical supplier, or they can hire a licensed pest manager to carry it out on their behalf. She said “We will always respond to high-risk situations, or if the landowner or tenant is unable to treat’

But is this even legal?

In February 2020 the legal section of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries advised Dr Craik and the Steering Committee that Queensland Health Department regulations do not allow many businesses to perform fire ant treatments.

The Pest Management Act 2001 aims to protect the public from health risks associated with pest control activities and the adverse results of the ineffective control of pests. The Act does not permit occupiers or owners of residential properties to perform fire ant treatments. Owner/occupiers are permitted to use only a household pesticide, ordinarily available for purchase in a retail store where groceries are sold and packaged in a way the pesticide is ordinarily available for purchase.  This does not fit the description of approved fire ant baits available from some hardware stories at a cost of $100 for a 500g bag of product.

And nursery operators who seek ICA40 accreditation to export their product interstate ‘must not attempt the eradication of RIFA (fire ants) on a source property on which RIFA infestation has been confirmed. The eradication of RIFA on a source property should be undertaken by a relevant Government Authority. Reinstatement of property freedom must be confirmed in writing by the ICA Co-ordinator for the district prior to the business recommencing certification of plants grown on the property under this Operational Procedure.’

Mr Andrew Turley, Director of Strategy of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is certainly aware of the legal issues associated with the program dumping the costs and risks of treating fire ants onto the public.

In September 2020, he told an industry forum that the Program’s messaging had changed from ‘If you’ve got fire ants, report them and we’ll come out and treat them’ to one of ‘empowering’ the community and industry to treat fire ants for themselves – to purchase bait, and where possible treat their yards, or engage a licensed pest manager to do that for them.

He also admitted that there were restrictions on who is allowed to buy bait and treat themselves. He said residents, sporting, recreational, educational and waste management facility staff, primary producers and builders can purchase the bait and treat the fire ants. But general business owners are not. They have to engage a licensed pest manager.

He said he had been working with Queensland Department of Health to get them to change their regulation. But the Department of Health has been heavily involved in the response to the covid-19 pandemic, so he does not expect to get any changes to the regulations until mid next year (June 2021)

 He also acknowledged the problems associated with the Fire Ant Program’s Self-Management Strategy – apart from the facts people could get stung and suffer anaphylaxis or they could cause fire ant nests to split and spread or get seriously injured if they use alternative products like petrol.

Mr Turley acknowledged that the public do not know the difference between cheap, general ant treatments and expensive fire ant baits. He acknowledged that people treating nests on their own properties were not likely to report them – weakening even further the program’s patchy treatment records.  He acknowledged the only reason the public would engage a costly licensed pest manager to treat fire ants, rather than wait for Biosecurity Queensland to treat it for free, was time. Biosecurity Queensland is paid well and is responsible for treating fire ant nests in a timely manner to eradicate them. This is not an excuse for Biosecurity Queensland to dump the costs and risks of treating fire ant nests onto the public. And is it even legal for them to do so?

It is time for a Royal Commission to hold Dr Craik and all previous chairs of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program oversight committee to account for an exploding fire ant infestation and the waste of around $600m of public money.

6th January 2021.