In ‘Under the Microscope’ April 2021 the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program tells the public to treat fire ants at home with bait available from local or online retailers or hire a pest manager to do it on their behalf. Dumping the costs and risks of treating fire ants onto the public, after nearly twenty years of telling them not to is evidence the eradication program has failed. ‘Self-management’ of fire ants was an option then Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk, rejected 2001. It’s the only option now because Palaszczuk rejected all scientific advice on how to manage the fire ant infestation for political gain. All subsequent Queensland Ministers for Agriculture have followed suit. Time for a Royal Commission 27th April 2021
Well-established infestations of fire ants were detected at the Port of Brisbane and the suburb of Richlands in February 2001.
In May 2001, against the scientific advice of his own department, Minister Palaszczuk declared the State would mount an eradication program, because he knew an eradication program would bring a lot of Commonwealth money into the State.
In June 2001, taking care not to contradict a Minister who had already announced an eradication program, fire ant experts from the USA, who had surveyed the infestation and said it was as bad as anything they had ever seen, offered the Minister three fire ant program options. They said Queensland had a chance of eradicating fire ants, but ONLY if the whole infestation was immediately and intensely baited three or four times a year for the next three years. And the ONLY way to do that quickly and effectively was by air: helicopters over urban areas and fixed-wing aircraft over rural areas. The National Fire Ant Consultative Committee supported that recommendation.
Again, Palaszczuk rejected scientific advice. With his eye on a lot of Commonwealth money, he announced a jobs program for four hundred unemployed people – many from his own electorate – to find and kill fire ants. The Beattie Labor government had recently had a massive election win with the promise of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ to address Queensland unemployment rate of 8.5%. A long time back-bencher Minister Palaszczuk saw a jobs program as a way to raise his profile with the powerful Australian Workers’ Union, the Beattie Cabinet and his own electorate. And it did. He remained Minister for Primary Industries until 2005 when he became Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Water, then retired from politics in 2006, aged 59, leaving a trail of destruction behind him.
In a program that relied on having feet on the ground, team leaders struggled to mount fully functioning teams. The many long term unemployed people, who made up 50%-60% of the workforce, some with mental health or addiction problem or were not functionally literate, did not turn up for work regularly or resented being there. An audit of the program in 2005 said the biggest drag on the program was staff problems. Poor attendance rates, high rates of accidents and disciplinary incidents resulted in variable rates of effort or quality across the program.
Subsequent independent scientific reviews of the program, with the US experts from 2001 on the panel, were shocked by the program’s lack of urgency.
The fire ant infestation has never been intensively treated. The program’s fragmented approach to treating fire ants is throwing good bait, and good money, after bad. Fire ants continue to spread.
The second option the US fire ant experts offered Minister Palaszczuk in 2001 was ‘aggressive containment’ – to define the boundary of the infestation, put restrictions on the movement of fire ant friendly material like soil and mulch out of the area and intensively bait the whole infestation to suppress it. Minister Palaszczuk rejected that advice as well. Worried the Commonwealth would think Queensland was mounting a containment program, which did not attract Commonwealth money, not an eradication program, he said there was no need to contain them because they were going to be eradicated. Even though he had the power to impose restrictions on the movement of fire ant friendly materials and to prosecute those who did not comply, he allowed high-risk enterprises to manage their own risk of spreading fire ants. Many community minded businesses did. Many did not.
The fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland has never been contained. It has blown out from 40,000ha in 2001 to 650,000ha in 2019 and continues to spread.
The third option the US fire ant experts offered Minister Palaszczuk in 2001 was ‘facilitative management’, as happens now in the USA. Individuals and businesses fund their own fire ant control methods with the support of government funded research and advice. In 2001 Minister Palaszczuk rejected that advice. He said that the public would expect the State Government to play a key role in eradication or control of this pest for public benefit.
He was right. The public does expect that, but the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has failed. After nearly twenty years of warning the public of the risks and costs of treating fire ant nest themselves, the program is now dumping those risks and costs onto the public. And it’s not even ‘facilitative management’ it’s just ‘self-management.’ The poor science behind the program has come under repeated criticism for not assessing the effectiveness of the program’s treatment and containment programs.
The fire ant program’s budget has blown out from $123.4m for a five year program to $600m for a nearly twenty year program. Queensland pays only 10% of that. The longer the program goes on, the money Commonwealth money comes into Queensland Treasury.
Minister Palaszczuk prioritised politics over science and has never been held to account for the disaster he created. Subsequent Queensland Ministers for Agriculture have followed suit. It is time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Ministers of Agriculture since 2001 to account for the waste of over $600m of public money and an out of control fire ant infestation that puts the safety of the public at risk forever.