Writings: Biosecurity Queensland's $BILLION 26 year Fire Ant Eradication Program. Fire ants spreading out of control, re-infesting treated areas. Time for a Royal Commission.

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What has Biosecurity Queensland’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program cost so far?

 Program reports make it difficult to know the exact cost of the program from till 2001 until now.  Here are my estimates.

  • The program started in 2001 with a budget of $123.4m for five years. Fire ants continued to spread and re-infest treated areas and the program’s budget blew out to around $400m by 2017.
  • In 2017-18 the program spent $38m, in 2018-19 another $53, and in 2019-20 another $58.5m. The program has not published its 2020-21 report, but the budget was likely around $60m. The program has not published its budget for 2021-22, but likely to be around $60m. The program spent it all by December 2021 and got a $33.3m top-up from the Commonwealth. So a total of around $302.8m so far: leaving around $108.3m of its $411.1m, 2017-27 budget left. And fire ants continue to spread and re-infest treated areas.
  • Now, Fire Ant Program Steering Committee Chair, Dr Wendy Craik, wants $60m a year for the next five years to prop up a Fire Ant Fiasco – another $300m
  • That comes to a grand total of just over $1 BILLION over 26 years.
  • The infestation is now at least fifteen times worse than it was in 2001 and spreading out of control.

Impossible to eradicate an entrenched, unbounded infestation.

 There is no scientific evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched fire ant infestation whose boundaries were unknown. Scientific advice was to tightly contain and suppress the infestation.  

In 2008 Biosecurity Queensland commissioned Dr Daniel Spring to develop a model to predict the spread of fire ants and the program’s chance of eradicating them. His model showed that eradication was not possible because fire ants were spreading faster than the program could find them. He recommended trials of remote-sensing surveillance to speed up the surveillance process.

Against the advice of the independent scientific review team in 2010, the trials went ahead. The technology could not differentiate cow pats from fire ant nests and missed thousands of actual nests.

In 2013, Biosecurity Queensland commissioned Spring to analyse the program again. He said the opportunity for eradication had been missed.

In 2016, the Agriculture Ministers Forum commissioned a review of the program to determine its future – eradication, containment and/or management. The reviewers commission Spring to model the program’s progress and to give advice. He acknowledged he could not model the program’s approach to eradication because the program lacked any empirical data. Nevertheless, he recommended continuing with an eradication program supported by remote-sensing surveillance technology.

A review commissioned by Biosecurity Queensland in 2018 on the feasibility of remote-sensing surveillance technology got the same results – it could not distinguish between fire ants and cow pats and missed actual nests.

An independent audit of the program in 2019 found the infestation now covered 600,000ha, fifteen times what it was in 2002, and eleven significant infestations had been found outside the program’s 2017 operational boundary.

In 2022, Daniel Spring is simply stating the obvious: fire ants have spread well beyond his earlier projections and beyond the program’s operational boundary.

Chair of the Fire Ant Program Steering Committee Dr Wendy Craik says fire ants can still be eradicated.

In May 2021, Chair of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, Dr Wendy Craik, acknowledged the program could not define the extent of the infestation. Nevertheless, she made the unsubstantiated and incredible claim that the program’s ‘experience and knowledge’ would enable it to eradicate fire ants from south-east Queensland by July 2027. But it would need an extra $60m each year over the next five years to do that.

In 2001, international fire ant experts said if the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program neither eradicated the pest nor contained its spread, the only option left was Self-Management. Since 2019, the program has been implementing the only option it has left as its Exit Strategy – dumping the responsibility, risks and costs of finding and treating fire ant nests onto local councils and the public.

The Commonwealth Agriculture Ministers’ Forum continues to throw good public money after bad.

The Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, chaired by federal minister David Littleproud with all State and Territory ministers of agriculture, are responsible for deciding the funding for the program. In November 2021, Minister David Littleproud criticised the Queensland government’s management of the program, saying there was a “very real risk” eradication would take longer and cost more. Nevertheless, in December 2021, the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum agreed to throw another $33.3m of public money at the program while sitting on an obviously critical review of the program by Dr Scott-Orr, ex Inspector-General of Biosecurity, that has not been released to the public.  

Minister Littleproud rightly criticises his Queensland State counter-part Mark Furner for the program’s poor performance, but he continues to throw good public money after bad.

Time for a Royal Commission to hold those responsible for a national biosecurity disaster and a colossal waste of public money to account. 

13th February 2022.