Writings: Fire Ant Free Olympics in Brisbane in 2032 if Qld govt dumps 1/2 Fire Ant Program onto Local Councils. What chance?

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 The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Strategic Review August 2021.

 In 2021, the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Craik, commissioned a review of the first 4 years (2017- 21) of the Ten-Year Program (2017-27) by Helen Scott-Orr, Monica Gruber and Will Zacharin.

The Review Team said from 2001 to 2017, the Program had cost $367m and the infestation had blown out from 40,000ha to 480,000ha. By 2021 it had blown out to 750,000ha and the Program had spent the entire ten-year budget of $411.4m, plus an additional $34m in just four year. The Review Team said the program would not be able to eradicate or contain fire ants within the current scope and budget of the Program and gave three options for the future that would achieve a ‘Fire Ant Free Olympics in Brisbane in 2032’.  The Review Team submitted their report to the Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum in August 2021 who sat on it until June 2023.  

What are the chances of a ‘Fire Ant Free Olympics in Brisbane in 2032?’

A short history of the world’s largest attempt to eradicate the super-pest, the red imported fire ant.  Two infested sites were found in Brisbane in 2001, covering about 40,000ha. Likely they had been there for a decade.  

Fire ant experts from the USA said the infestations were as bad as anything they had seen and were too entrenched to eradicate. They recommended tightly containing the infestations and repeatedly baiting them to suppress them: cheaply and effectively by air. They said if the fire ants were neither contained nor eradicated, the only option left was self-management: dumping the costs and risks of a permanent fire ant infestation onto the public. That is where we are now.

The Queensland Government knew the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments would fund a program to eradicate the pest and Queensland’s contribution to an eradication program would be just 10%. The Queensland Government also knew that Queensland would have to pay 100% of the costs of a program to contain the pest within its borders. With Queensland’s unemployment rate running at 8.7%, the Queensland Government rejected scientific advice and announced an eradication program and instead of baiting the infestation cheaply and efficiently by air, used national funding to create a jobs program for 400 unskilled workers.  Auditors said the slow cumbersome workforce was the biggest drain on the efficiency of the program.  The Program continues to pump millions of dollars into Queensland Treasury and create thousands of jobs – a boon for recruitment agencies.

Consequently, scientific reviews of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010 said the program was not eradicating fire ants. By 2016, the Program’s budget had blown out from $123.4m to $367m and the infestation had blown out from 40,000ha to 400,000ha.  In 2015, the Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of the future of the program: to continue with an eradication attempt or revert to containment?

Contradicting all previous scientific reviews and acknowledging the lack of any performance data to assess the program’s performance, the 2016 review recommended continuing with an eradication effort with the support of helicopter mounted surveillance technology, trials of which in 2015 found it identified millions of rocks and cow pats as fire ant nests but missed actual nests.

In 2016, the Australian Agriculture Ministers Forum approved another $411.4m for a Ten-Year Eradication Plan (2017-27), with a national Steering Committee chaired by Dr Wendy Craik. By 2017, the infestation had blown out to 480,000ha and the Program had to bring forward additional funds to treat the additional 80,000ha.

The 2019 Efficiency and Effectiveness Audit of the Program found the infestation had blown out to 600,000ha with eleven significant detections found outside the 2017 boundary. Targeted areas had not received their three scheduled rounds of treatment each year and the Program was considering reducing that to two.

The Reviewer said:

  • There was no scientific basis for the program’s west to east rolling treatment strategy. It was just a policy decision to prioritise treating the infestation expanding into farm-land in the Lockyer Valley over the persistent and intensifying and more difficult to treat infestations in the cities to the east. The Program only responded to public reports of individual nests in city areas, until the Program was swamped with so many reports they stopped.
  • The program was not based on shared public-private responsibilities. He said the program’s intention to introduce self-management/self-treating fire ant nests was not a way to share responsibility with the public. It did not save costs, it just transferred them.
  • The Reviewer was also very critical of the Program’s Steering Committee. He said:
    • There had been major changes to the program but no change to the Program’s long-term strategy.
    • The program had no outcome focused performance indicators because the program’s information systems could not provide reliable performance data.
    • The Steering Committee lacked expertise in governance, finance, communication, information technology and technical skills and did not meet frequently or long enough.

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Strategic Review August 2021 said the Program would not be able to eradicate or contain fire ants within the current scope and budget and gave three future options, with one that would achieve ‘Fire Ant Free Olympics in Brisbane in 2032’.  The Review Team submitted their report to the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum in August 2021.

Future budget

The Review Team estimated the Program needs another $5b to ensure a Fire Ant Free Olympics, on top of the $1b the Program had spent from 2001 to 2020.

Previous reviews have questioned the Program’s ability to manage its finances. Fire Ant Program managers have blamed the Program’s poor performance on budget constraints since 2006.  When the Program Director said he was doing the best he could within a shrinking budget, the 2006 Science Review Team blamed compromises in the treatment regime. In 2015 the independent Biosecurity Capability Review said Biosecurity Queensland was not able to mount credible business cases for on-going funding because it does not collect performance data and analyse it on the basis of risk to show how it will be used to best effect.

The Queensland government contributes just 10.5% of Program funding but the Director General of the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry must approve the Steering Committee’s budget decisions.

The Review Team’s preferred option for a Fire Ant Free Olympic in 2032 is:

  • The Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments contribute $300m to the Program each year until then and Local Councils, industries and the general public in south-east Queensland contribute another $250m each year until the Olympics.
  • Their second option is for the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to contribute $250m each year to the Program in perpetuity and Local Councils, industries and the general public to contribute $350m each year in perpetuity.
  • Their third option is for the infestations to be managed State-by-State with the costs borne by State governments or transferred to other agencies.

Future scope

The reviewers said the scope of the program needs to change so that Biosecurity Queensland is not solely responsible. Other reviews have criticised Biosecurity Queensland’s lack of any willingness to share responsibility.

The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland lacked the ability to build partnerships inside and outside of government: including with industry partners, other State and local governments agencies, community groups and the broader Queensland community. The review said Biosecurity Queensland takes a regulatory approach to key stakeholders, rather than engage them in an outcomes-based partnership, communicates with partners predominantly to seek input into program specific policy, or for resources or technical assistance.

The current review recommends the Program maintains responsibility for treating fire ant infestation in rural areas which are relatively easy to treat by air while dumping the responsibility for treating the more difficult infestations in the cities onto those City Councils.

Industry stakeholders

In May 2018, about forty industry representatives attended a Fire Ant Program Stakeholder Forum. They said they were happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation, under the Biosecurity Act 2014, to take all reasonable precautions to ensure they don’t spread fire ants, if Biosecurity Queensland fulfilled its own General Biosecurity Obligation by re-instating a large team of Compliance officer to identify high risk enterprises, work with them to develop risk management plans, audit those plans and prosecute those who don’t comply, to approve land development applications and to control the movement of fire ant carriers out of infested areas.

General public stakeholder

The Program’s Community and Self Treatment Program, of handing out free packs of fire ant bait is dangerous, in breach of the Queensland Pest Management Act 2001which restricts such activities to licensed pest management technicians and likely to make the infestation worse.

People must not to use it as a preventative measure, must wear protective clothing, not over or under use the bait, not apply it near waterways, keep the bait away from children and poultry and not apply it if rain is forecast with 24 hours.

When free bait is no longer available the public will face the cost of contracting a licensed pest management technician or putting themselves and others at risk by using other, dangerous, but ineffective products like petrol.

Local Government stakeholders and the Brisbane Olympics 2032

 Venues for the Brisbane Olympics range from the Sunshine Coast in the north, to the Gold Coast in the south, from Redland City in east, through Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan cites, west to the Scenic Rim Region and Toowoomba City. All are inside the Fire Ant Infested Area of south-east Queensland.

Regional and City Councils’ Fire Ant Policies are clear their General Biosecurity Obligation under the Biosecurity Act 2015 is to maintain the safety of council lands and to report fire ant nests to the State government. They are equally clear the Queensland State Government, through Biosecurity Queensland, is responsible for delivering the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.

The chance of a ‘Fire Ant Free Olympics in Brisbane in 2032’ is remote, to say the least.

21 June 2023.