A political decision.
There is not a scrap of scientific evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched fire ant infestation identified in Brisbane in 2001. Scientific advice was to suppress and contain a 40,000ha infestation.
Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk in the Beattie government, made the political decision to mount an eradication program, which attracts significant funding from the Commonwealth and other States and Territories rather than a suppression and containment program that does not, to create a jobs program. All subsequent Queensland governments followed suit.
Consequently, fire ants now infest 500 suburbs in south-east Queensland: in Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities and the Moreton Bay, Somerset, Lockyer Valley and Scenic Rim Regional Areas – up from the 200 suburbs infested by 2012 and up on the 40,000ha infested in 2001.
Dumping the responsibility to contain the spread of fire ants on to the public.
In 2001, the program started with a large team of Biosecurity Inspectors who advised high risk businesses in infested areas to develop Risk Management Plans and audited those plans.
Fearing this effort to contain the spread of fire ants suggested the program lacked confidence it could eradicate the pest and put Commonwealth funding at risk, Biosecurity Queensland dismantled it.
In 2016, using the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014, Biosecurity Queensland dumped the responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants onto the public with a ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ meaning, people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones have a legal responsible to take all reasonable precautions to ensure they don’t spread fire ants.
Representatives of high-risk industries at a Fire Ant Program Forum in 2018 said they were happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation if Biosecurity Queensland did too – by re-instating a large team of biosecurity inspectors and re-introducing the use of Risk Management Plans as well as approving property development applications and keeping the Biosecurity Zone maps and information up to date. They didn’t.
Failing to regulate
In 2019, the program auditor said controlling the spread of fire ants is a central and essential element of the eradication program. The Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 provides for regulations to control the movement of fire ant carriers and penalty infringements notices for non-compliance, but Biosecurity Queensland has not used the powers of the Act.
Noting the recommendations of previous reviewers on controlling the movement of fire ants, the auditor said the program needed to urgently implement those recommendations and added a few of his own.
He was appalled at the program’s failure to use infringement notices and prosecutions to improve compliance with movement controls – noting, that for the first time, the program had issued three infringement notices in November 2018, but was yet to prosecute ANY offender for non-compliance.
He was also appalled by the program’s level of compliance checks. With no estimation on the number of high-risk enterprises in the 600,000ha operational area in 2018-19, the program conducted only 912 compliance checks on the transport of fire ant carriers outside the operational area. At least, that was up from the 543 conducted in 2017-18. But the auditor was not impressed that 30% of instances of non-compliance were not resolved within a month and the program’s attitude that non-compliance was minor was not acceptable.
Concerned that the transport of fire ant carrier material across the program’s operational boundary was creating fire ant habitat, he recommended the program inspect loads of those materials, at the place of origin, at the expensive of the owner.
He also noted that the program was funded for eleven compliance officers, but as of December 2019, only seven positions were filled. He said the program needed to keep staff at funded levels.
The program’s response to the auditor’s recommendation in May 2021, acknowledged that the program does not know the extent of the infestation, is not imposing costs on those who create fire ant habitat, is not issuing infringement notices or prosecutions on those who breach movement controls and still does not have enough compliance staff.
Time for a Royal Commission to hold those responsible to account for the waste of ~$700m of public money and an out-of-control fire ant infestation.
5th September 2022