Writings: Senate Committee wants more money for a 20 year old, failed fire ant program with no cost-benefit analysis of its use of $1b so far.

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The Australian Government’s Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee conducted an inquiry into red imported fire ants in Australia.  The National Fire Ant Eradication Program’s (NFAEP) has failed to eradicate any areas of infestation or contain the spread of this super pest for 20 years despite spending $1b of public money in an attempt.

The Committee investigated:

  • The expected costs and impacts of fire ants if they spread across Australia, on human health and lifestyle, industries and the environment.
  • An assessment of current or proposed fire ant response plans for achieving eradication and an evaluation of their funding.

The Committee received 72 submissions, conducted public hearings in Brisbane, Newcastle and Canberra and reported on 18th April 2024.

The Committee found the NFAEP has been hampered by:

  • Shortfalls in funding
  • Insufficient coordination between different levels of government
  • A lack of transparency and
  • A reluctance to involve industry, other scientific organisations and the private sector in solutions.

Shortfalls in funding

The Committee’s very first recommendation is to review the current level of funding for the NFAEP to determine if it is sufficient to eradicate fire ants by 2032 without ever conducting a cost benefit analysis of the program’s use of $1b of public money over 20 years.

Scientific reviews from 2001 until 2010 said it was not feasible to eradicate well-entrenched infestations of the pest and recommended a containment and suppression program. The program-friendly science review in 2016 acknowledged it was unable to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of continuing with an eradication effort or reverting to a containment and suppression program because the program has never collected reliable or consistent performance data: meaning the program has no evidence to support claims it has eradicated any areas of infestation or contained their spread.  Nevertheless the 2016 review recommended continuing with an eradication effort.

This program has never collected any reliable performance data because it has never had a functioning information system: a make-or break milestone set for the program in 2001.  Program auditors have complained that because the program does not report against specific, measurable, fit-for-purpose performance indicators or conduct cost-benefit analyses of its investment, there was a risk the program may be unable to demonstrate due care in the use of public money. 

Many submitters to the inquiry, aware of the severe risks and impacts fire ants are having and will have on human health, our outdoor lifestyle, our native species and industries like agriculture, tourism and construction, want more money used to eradicate this super pest. They have had twenty years to watch the fire ant infestation expand out of Brisbane into South East Queensland and now onto the Darling Downs and into northern New South Wales and to voice their concerns. The New South Wales government, the second biggest funder of the NFAEP after the Commonwealth, with a representative on the program’s oversight committee, has been watching fire ants spread inexorably closer their border. Border checks were only put in place after the horse had bolted.

 Insufficient coordination between different levels of government and lack of transparency (Commonwealth State and Local) and the lack of transparency.

 There has always been close cooperation between the Queensland Government that implements the NFAEP and the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture that has national oversight of the program. That comes through a Consultative or Steering committee. From 2001 to 2016 the Consultative Committee was chaired by a senior executive from the Australian Department of Agriculture.  As I documented in my submission to the Senate Inquiry, the Consultative Committee repeats the program’s unsubstantiated claims of progress (that I reported to the Crime and Misconduct Commission) and mis-reports the recommendations of independent reviews to the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum.

The program’s Steering Committee from 2016 until 2024, with a non-government Chair, continued the practice of mis-reporting. In 2019, the program’s auditor said the relationship between the NFAEP and its national Steering Committee was too close.  

That NFAEP Steering Committee was replaced by a National Management Group this year and posted its first ‘Communique’ in February: making the same vague, unsubstantiated, claims about the NFAEP. It said:

‘The NMG recognised the significant ongoing efforts by the Program to eradicate fire ants from Australia’  – with no details of  those efforts or measures of their effectiveness.

‘The NMG also noted the substantial amount of work the Program has completed to bring the Program back on track following the recent extraordinary wet weather events in South East Queensland’ – with no details of that work or any measures of its effectiveness.

 ‘Recognising the importance of curbing human assisted movement as part of eradication efforts, the recruitment of additional compliance officers in the Program is underway and will increase the size of the compliance team four-fold’ with no justification of a four-fold increase (why not ten-fold, or more?) and no details of compliance actions or measures of their effectiveness.

Coordination and cooperation between the Queensland State Government and affected Local Councils is was a very different matter. Local Councils were intended to be part of the planning and operations of the NFAEP from the very beginning. Brisbane City Council sent a representative to the NFAEP’s regular management meetings – until the State government took over all funding and all operations in Local Council areas.

Now the NFAEP is dumping the responsibility for most of the program onto Local Councils via its ‘Horseshoe’ Response Plan 2023-27.

  1. The NFAEP will visually inspect (an unreliable method) just 17% of a 10km wide, horseshoe-shape band around the western edge of the program’s operational areas – not the infested area which the program has never defined. Significant outbreaks have occurred beyond the program’s operational area every year and the infested area now extends to Oakey on the Darling Downs and Wardell in northern NSW.
  2. The NFAEP will treat a 15km wide band inside the surveillance band (340,000ha of an 800,000ha infested area) ‘up to three times a year for two years.’ International scientific advice is four rounds each year for three years.
  3. The NFAEP has no operational plans for the remaining 650,00ha that covers all of Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redland, and Gold Coast cities and large parts of the Scenic Rim, Moreton Bay, Somerset and Lockyer Valley Regional Council areas – and likely shortly Toowoomba Regional Council and Tweed Local Council areas.   Instead, the NFAEP is dumping the responsibility to treat and contain infestations on Council land back onto Local Councils at the cost of between $200,000 to $700,00 pa – likely to be covered by a levy on ratepayers who have already paid for an eradication program with their taxes.  The plan for non-council land is to establish ‘self-management agreements’ with large landholders, farmers, residents and private entities.  All landholders have an obligation under the General Biosecurity Obligation to report and not spread fire ants, but they are not obliged to treat their properties. For many years the NFAEP told landholders they must NOT treat suspicious nests! If landholders do not enter into ‘self-management agreements’ many infested properties may never be treated.

A reluctance to involve industry or other scientific organisation and the private sector in solutions.

 The NFAEPs biosecurity strategy is based on shared responsibility and shared decision making with key stakeholders. The 2015 Biosecurity Capability Review found the program’s main way of relating to industry and the community is to regulate them or to seek resources,  technical advice or input into policies and legislation. That review also said the NFAEP lacks the ability to build partnerships with researchers in universities and research centres and other State and local government agencies. Nothing has changed.


The Committee recognised that human assisted movement of high-risk material is the primary contributor to fire ants spreading outside the NFAEPs biosecurity zones and that contradictory movement restriction contributed to the failure of the recent attempt to eradicate the spread of the varroa mite that threatens the honey industry.

The program auditor in 2019 recommended imposing costs on the movement of fire ant carriers outside the program’s operational area and to impose penalties on those who create fire ant friendly habitat. There is no evidence that is happening.

In 2020 CSIRO reported worrying non-compliance with fire ant movement controls because they were ad hoc and poorly administered.

The Committee’s recommendation for this most strategic aspect of the NFAEP is a vague statement about the Australian, Queensland and New South Wales working to increase compliance with movement controls with spot checks at border crossings and regular reports on breaches and penalties.  

A Statutory authority

The Committee did consider improving the independence, transparency, public engagement and the delivery of the NFAEP by creating an independent statutory authority. In 2015, the Biosecurity Capability Review recommended the same thing:  removing Biosecurity Queensland, which operates the NFAEP, from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, where it is vulnerable to political decisions, to increase its accountability and protect it from funding risks.

29th April 2024