Writings: National Fire Ant Program Chair Dr Wendy Craik tells ABC Radio Brisbane she does not know how big the infestation is, but says there is a chance to eradicate it, but with more money. A $1b Fire Ant Fiasco. Time for a Royal Commission.

Now showing category: Writings

When ABC Radio Brisbane asked Dr Craik in June 2021, how much the National Red Imported Fire Ant Program had cost since 2001, she didn’t know.  In fact, it has cost around $700m – $400m to 2017 and another $300m to 2022. Dr Craik now wants another $300m to bring the total to $1 billion.

Dr Craik told ABC Radio Brisbane she has only recently appreciated the extent of the infestation.  Knowing the extent of the infestation is critical to any sort of fire ant program and program reports since 2001 have shown the infestation spreading ever year.

In 2001, international fire ant experts said the infestation in Brisbane was too entrenched to eradicate and recommended tightly controlling and suppressing it. Instead, the program decided to chase the last ant to kill it. Dr Craik knows the fire ant infestation has gone from around 40,000ha in 2002 to over 650,000ha now and infests Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities and the Lockyer Valley, Scenic Rim, Somerset, and Moreton Bay regional areas.

With no supporting evidence, and while the Agriculture Ministers Forum sits on the likely critical review of the program by Dr Scott-Orr, ex Inspector General of Biosecurity, since August 2021, Dr Craik believes there is ‘a chance’ the infestation can be eradicated.   But with even more money – another $300m to bring the total to $1b – and with that perennial ‘silver bullet’ – remote-sensing surveillance technology.

Biosecurity Queensland has been spruiking the idea of helicopter surveillance to detect fire ant nests since 2009. Trials over many years have continued to show it can’t tell the difference between cow pats, rocks etc and fire ant nests, and misses actual nests.

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has been a boon to the Queensland Treasury. The program is funded nationally, with 50% of funds coming from the Commonwealth government and the rest from State and Territory governments.  Queensland’s contribution is just 10%. The longer it goes on, the longer Queensland Treasury benefits.

But it can’t go on forever. International experts said in 2001, if the program neither eradicated fire ants nor contained their spread, the only option left was Self-Management – putting the responsibility, costs and risks of managing fire ants onto the public. This is what the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is doing now. In ‘Fire Ant News’ February 2022, the program is offering a free on-line training program to help homeowners and tenants treat and manage fire ants on their properties and offering free fire ant treatment kits to residents on the Gold Coast.

The Invasive Species Council is right. The program needs to go under new management. When Biosecurity Queensland was created in March 2007 from the Animal and Pest Health Services Division of the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, it was never intended to remain in the department. It was supposed to become an independent statutory authority.   That is what I believe should happen now – and not be managed by a private organisation like the Invasive Species Council. Around 2015, the Council wasted members money on a trip to the USA to see a fire ant infestation when they could have seen the one in Wacol in Brisbane’s south-west which US experts said was as bad as anything they had ever seen.  And wasted more money bringing another US fire ant expert to Australian to convince States and Territories governments to fund an eradication program when the program had ignored his colleagues’ advice in 2002.

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

18th February 2022