Writings: Queensland fire ants are now, inevitably, in Victoria. The fire ant program does not control their spread.

Earlier this month, Queensland Fire Ant staff travelled to inspect a fire ant infestation in Victoria, traced back to fire ant friendly products from Queensland: likely potted plants, mulch, compost, hay, straw, soil, turf or manure. Almost certainly, they had not been inspected before they left Queensland. This is inevitable consequence of the Queensland government mounting an unscientific National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program instead of a program to tightly contain and suppress the infestation, as advised by the experts. The reason is political: an unscientific eradication program attracts significant national funding: a scientific containment program attracts none. The unscientific chase after the last ant to kill it has come at the expense of containing their spread. Time to hold Queensland Ministers for Agriculture and Fisheries, from Henry Palaszczuk in 2001 to Mark Furner now to account for an out-of-control fire ant infestation that threatens the life-style, environment and economy of the entire country. 11th April 2023

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There is not a scrap of evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate the well-entrenched infestations of fire ants found in Brisbane in February 2001.   When fire ant experts from the United States inspected the infestation, they said it was as bad as anything they had ever seen.

They said south-east Queensland is ‘fire ant heaven.’  Any chance of eradicating a well-entrenched infested was highly unlikely.  They recommended tight controls on the movement of fire ant friendly materials out of infested areas and repeated baiting to suppress it.   

Well ahead of the US scientists’ recommendation, Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk announced an eradication program.  A long-time backbencher, he had been a Minister long enough to know that if the Commonwealth and other States and Territories funded an eradication program, Queensland’s contribution would be just 10%, but Queensland would have to pay 100% of the costs of a program to contain the pest within Queensland.  

Minister Palaszczuk’s rationale was:

  • a containment effort would look like Queensland was not confident in eradicating the pest, and so threaten funding,
  • an eradication program could help meet a political promise to create hundreds of jobs for unskilled workers at a time when Queensland’s unemployment rate was 8% – likely higher in Minister Palaszczuk’s electorate.
  • Containment was unnecessary if the pest was eradicated.

Consequently, the large team of inspectors who had worked with high-risk businesses to develop and audit Approved Risk Management was disbanded and so too, the risk management plans.

The chase after the last ant to kill it has literally come at the expense of containing their spread.

Instead, the Fire Ant Program dumped the responsibility for not spreading fire ants onto the public by imposing a General Biosecurity Obligation under the Biosecurity Act 2014. It obliges everyone to take all reasonable precautions for not spreading fire ants.

Industry representatives at a Fire Ant Program Stakeholders Forum in May 2018 said they were happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation, but they wanted the Fire Ant Program to fulfil its own obligations by re-establishing a large team of compliance officers, re-introducing the use of Approved Risk Management Plans for high risk enterprises and Quality Assurance programs for suppliers to help them mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants, by approving land development plans and by controlling the movement of fire ant carriers out of biosecurity zones. The Fire Ant Program has not fulfilled its own Biosecurity Obligation.

The independent auditor of the program in 2019 said controlling the spread of fire ants, either by natural spread or human-assisted movement, is a central and essential element of the Fire Ant Program and while the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 provides for regulations to control the movement of fire ant carriers and penalty infringements notices for non-compliance, the program does not impose them.  

Consequently, fire ants are spreading out of control. The infestation in south-east Queensland has blown out from 40,000ha to 800,000ha. They are now in Victoria and within 12km of the Queensland/New South Wales border.

Time to hold Queensland Ministers for Agriculture and Fisheries, from Henry Palaszczuk in 2001 to Mark Furner now to account for an out-of-control fire ant infestation that threatens the life-styles, environments and economies of the entire country.

11th April 2023