Writings: Fire ants STILL and INEVITABLY, infesting Brisbane's south-west: 'Ground Zero' of the 2001 infestation, 22 years and $800+m later.

Last week, a nursery in the suburb of Oxley in Brisbane’s south-west, was forced to stop selling potted plants. Fire ants had been found on the boundary of the property, affecting its business and its home gardener customers. This is an inevitable consequence of the unscientific, incompetent $800+m National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program mounted by Biosecurity Queensland, part of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, over the past 22 years, that has poured $800+m into Queensland Treasury to create thousands of jobs in Queensland.

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The suburb of Oxley is ‘ground zero’ of one of the two infestations of fire ants found in Brisbane in February 2001: one at the Port of Brisbane and the other in Brisbane’s south-western suburbs: in total, about 40,000ha.

Scientific assessment at the time was the infestations were likely ten years old and too entrenched to eradicate. Scientific advice was to tightly contain the infestations by regulating the movement of fire ant friendly materials like soil and mulch out of the areas and repeatedly baiting the areas to suppress the infestations.

A long-time back-bencher, Henry Palaszczuk was Minister for Primary Industries in 2001, but he had been a minister long enough to know the Commonwealth and all State and Territory governments would fund a program to eradicate the pest and Queensland’s contribution would be just 10%, but Queensland would have to pay 100% of the cost of a program to contain the pest within Queensland. He rejected scientific advice to mount a containment program and announced an eradication program.

Scientific advice for an attempt to eradicate the pest was to go hard and fast: over-estimate the infested area and bait it repeatedly, quickly, effectively and cheaply by air.  Minister Palaszczuk rejected that advice as well.

Minister Palaszczuk was part of the Beattie Labor government that won a landslide election, also in February 2001, with the promise of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,’ to address the State’s 8% unemployment rate.  The rate was likely higher in Minister Palaszczuk’s low-income electorate.  He announced the creation of four hundred jobs for unskilled workers to find and kill fire ants.   Centrelink welfare recipients were forced to take jobs on the program or lose their benefits. Independent audits of the program said a slow, incident prone workforce was the greatest drag on the efficiency of the program.

Any fire ant program, eradication or containment, has to do three things. The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program fails on all three.

Find the fire ants. The program conducts no systematic surveillance to find new infestations but relies on the numerous, but random reports from the public.

Kill the fire ants: Fire ants continue to re-infest treated areas.

Contain the spread: The program does not inspect loads of fire ant friendly materials moving out of infested areas and does not impose infringement notices on the illegal movement of fire ant carriers.  

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program started in 2001 with a budget of $123.4m over five years. That has blown out to $800+m over twenty-two years. The infestation has blown out from 40,000ha to 800,000+ha. But the program has created a boon for Queensland Treasury and recruitment agencies who have filled thousands of field staff positions: the real and only reason for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.  

Minister Palaszczuk created a cash-cow for Queensland Treasury that every Queensland Minister for Primary Industries/Agriculture and Fisheries has followed since. Time to hold every one of them to account for an out-of-control fire ant infestation that will affect the economy, environment and life-style of the most of Australia and the waste of $800+m, so far, of public money.

17th April 2023