After ignoring scientific advice to contain and suppress a well-entrenched fire ant infestation, 20 years too late Biosecurity Queensland, is trying to contain and suppress an out-of-control infestation. Biosecurity Queensland’s unscientific and incompetent eradication attempt has inevitably failed. If the Commonwealth government keeps throwing good money after bad, the fire ant program is here FOREVER. Jobs for managers, money for Queensland Treasury but costs and pain for the public. Time for a Royal Commission. 24th March 2022
There is no scientific evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched fire ant infestation.
In 2001, local and international experts said it was too late to eradicate the 40,000ha infestation. Their advice was (1) know where the boundary is – ie delimit it. (2) stop any fire ant friendly material coming out of the infested area (Contain and control the infestation), (3) bait the infested area, by air, four times each year in the warm months to suppress the infestation (it won’t eradicate it), and (4) do this every year because fire ants are here forever.
In 2001 Queensland Agriculture Minister Henry Palaszczuk rejected sound scientific advice and created a huge jobs program in his electorate. All subsequent Ministers have followed suit to bring millions of Commonwealth dollars into the State. The results were inevitable.
The 2002 scientific review said it was too early to determine if the program’s eradication attempt would work but if fire ants were not eradicated by the end of 2004, the program should revert to a containment program. Fire ants weren’t eradicated by 2004 and the program did not change.
The 2004 scientific review said the program was not working. Management did not know how many properties had been treated or surveyed but they were reducing the number of treatments. Fire ants continued to spread.
The 2006 scientific review said the program was not working. They said start again, this time with aerial baiting which Henry Palaszczuk had rejected. Aerial baiting did not start again until 2017 when I recommended it to then Commonwealth Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce.
The 2009 scientific review was scathing. It said treatment and surveillance methods did not work and recommended the program revert to one of suppression and containment. It didn’t.
The 2016 scientific review said the program had no data that eradication was working.
The 2019 audit of the program said the 2017-27 Ten Year Plan’s ‘rolling’ treatment strategy – starting on the western edge of the infestation and rolling eastward was unscientific. It was a policy decision to prioritise country areas over city areas where the dense infestation is now.
Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Suppression Taskforce, chaired by Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Director-General, Bob Gee is now planning suppression treatment for the very areas the 2017-27 TenYear Plan had put on the waiting list. This huge area includes all the eastern cities – Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and the Gold Coast and parts of the Moreton Bay and Scenic Rim regions.
How feasible is it to suppress and contain the infestation now?
Containing and suppressing a 40,000ha infestation in 2002 was feasible. The infestation is now over 650,000ha and Biosecurity Queensland intends to extend the treatment area even further because it still does not know where the edge of the infestation is. Systematically baiting that entire area is not feasible.
Biosecurity Queensland recently issued a Gold Coast civil construction company a $5000 fine for unlawfully moving fire ant friendly material in the biosecurity zone. You could probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of fines Biosecurity Queensland has issued over 20 years and you could probably count on the fingers of one hand, the number of successful prosecutions Biosecurity Queensland has made.
Did the Gold Coast company pay the fine or argue that fire ants would not have been there if Biosecurity Queensland had done its job in containing the spread?
The program actively dismantled its large team of Biosecurity Inspectors who identified high risk enterprises, developed risk management plans with them and audited those plans because Ministers feared Commonwealth funders would assume the program was not confident it could eradicate the pest. The 2019 audit of the program said the containment/compliance team was understaffed and not using the powers of the legislation to prosecute those who failed to comply with movement controls.
What will it cost?
The program’s annual budget is now $60m pa, up from the $40m pa budgeted for in 2017 and that is up from the $25m pa in 2002. The budget gets bigger as the infestation gets bigger. As Biosecurity Queensland increases its estimate of the extent of the infestation, who knows how far it will blow out. It has spent around $700m so far.
Queensland Treasury will be a big winner. 90% of program funding come from the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments. The program has been a cash cow for Queensland Treasury for 20 years.
The incompetent politicians and program managers who have created this disaster and who will continue to benefit from the fiasco: Fire Ant Program Steering Committee Chair Dr Wendy Craik, Queensland Minister Mark Furner, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Director-General Bob Gee, Queensland’s Chief Biosecurity Officer, Malcolm Letts, Fire Ant Program General Manager Graeme Dudgeon – at least.
In 2001, US fire ant experts said if the program neither eradicated fire ants nor contained their spread, the only option left was ‘self-management’ – dumping the costs and risks of treating fire ants onto the public and local councils – who were shut out of the program at the beginning – forever. That is where the program is now, So, the Queensland public loses.
Tax payers in the other States and Territories have been paying Queensland for 20 years to keep fire ants out of their State or Territory. As the red imported fire ant continues to spread it will inevitably infest much of mainland Australia.
Time for a Royal Commission to hold those responsible for the waste of $700m of public money and one of the worst biosecurity disasters this country is likely to face to account.