Writings: Federal Minister Watt announces more public money for another fire ant eradication program to do more of the same. Insanity.

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National Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has announced another $268m over four years as ‘the biggest ever federal investment in the fight against fire ants that this country has ever seen’…..’We’ve been able to contain the spread of fire ants, but we need to do more to eradicate them.’

Fact check 1:’The biggest federal investment.’

The first National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program (NRIFAEP), from 2001 to 2016, cost $400m. The infestation blew out from 40,000ha to 400,000ha.

The second NRIFAEP, from 2017-27, blew it’s $411.4m budget by 2022. The infestation blew out to 600,000ha.

A third NRIFAEP, with a $268m budget over 2024-28 and an infestation now covering 800,000ha, intends to do more of the same, with even more public money, while expecting a different result  – insanity.

Fact check 2: ’We’ve been able to contain the spread of fire ants.’

A milestone set for the NRIFAEP by the Ministerial Council in 2001 was a functioning information system to collect reliable and consistent performance data.  In December 2018 the program’s risk management sub-committee reported that the program’s lack of functioning information systems to provide timely and accurate performance data posed an extreme risk to the program.  The program has no data to support any claims of success – eradication or containment.

Fact check 3: ‘but we need to do more to eradicate them.’

There is not a scrap of scientific advice it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation of fire ants. Scientific advice in 2001 was to tightly contain and suppress the infestation. The 2004 science review said if the eradication attempt was not successful by 2004, the program should revert to one of containment.  The eradication attempt continued. The 2009 science review said the program’s methods were not detecting or killing fire ants and recommended reverting to containment.  The eradication attempt continued. The 2016 science review admitted it could not assess the effectiveness of the eradication program because of its lack of data. The eradication attempt continued.

The result of two failed fire ant eradication programs is an out-of-control fire ant infestation.

Fire ants now infest an area of south-east Queensland that extends from the Sunshine Coast in the north – Toowoomba on the range to the west, the islands in Moreton Bay to the east, and highly likely south over the border into New South Wales.  

This is the direct result of the NRIFAEP dumping the responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants onto residents and industry. As the program auditor noted in 2019, at a time of intense property development in south-east Queensland that was creating fire ant habit, the NRIFAEP failed to employ enough compliance officers to inspect high risk enterprises and does not use infringement notices and prosecution powers to enforce compliance.

What to do now?

Minister Watt asked me that very question at a Community Forum in Brisbane in July. National funding is available to States and Territories to eradicate an invasive species, in the nation interest, but there is no national funding for a State or Territory to contain a pest within their borders, also in the national interest. This creates an incentive for States or Territories to mount unscientific eradication programs to access national funding – which is what the Queensland government has done in the case of the NRIFAEP.

I advised Minister Watt to fund States and Territories that are infested to contain the pest within their borders.  He has chosen not to.

23rd Oct 2023