INSIDE STORY: How Ipswich became infested by killer ants

Fire ants have infested Ipswich due to the failure of successive government programs.
Fire ants have infested Ipswich due to the failure of successive government programs. Alex Wild - University of Texas

BUNGLING by successive Queensland governments has seen the war on the red fire ants lost and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted.

Dr Pam Swepson, who worked on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program from its inception in 2002 for three years, has told the QT "the war against fire ants was lost at the beginning" and continued to be lost.

Ms Swepson worked for the Department of Primary Industries for 17 years and her role on the ant eradication program was to liaise with industry and residents impacted by the ants.

Fire ants have now invaded all but two Ipswich suburbs, are rife in the Lockyer Valley and are marching through south-east Queensland and towards the NSW border.

The ants, which have killed 80 people in the US, destroyed crops and killed ground-born stock, are now out of control and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars of damage.

Ms Swepson produced reports on the program for program funders and said she watched political interference and the ignoring of scientific advice cripple the program from the beginning.

In 2003 she told the Crime and Misconduct Commission about those issues.

She said successive governments since 2002 had spent $350 million in public money, both commonwealth and state, and that the infestation now was "10 times bigger than what it was in 2002".

Entomologists regard the fire ant as one of the top six invasive species on the planet.

Ms Swepson added there had been "a total failure of Biosecurity Queensland" because it has repeatedly ignored scientific advice and that scientific reviews had shown the program has not been on track to eradicate the fire ants since 2004/05.

She said that was contrary to government spin which had suggested all was "going well" when the opposite was in fact the case.

"I have followed the cover-up through media releases and program reports and reviews that I have accessed under Right to Information processes," Ms Swepson said.

Ms Swepson said former government ministers, of all stripes, had suggested they were "eradicating" the ants to get commonwealth funding, but that they were not.

"It was short-term political gain to get $350 million into Queensland at the long-term cost of fire ant infestation," she said.

Ms Swepson said Henry Palaszczuk, who was the minister for primary industries and fisheries in 2004/05, had ignored advice from US experts about how to tackle the ants.

"They said that what you've got to do is aggressive containment," she said.

"But the minister allowed industries to self-manage the risk of spreading the risk, but with all self-management it didn't happen.

"The Americans also said to go at it hard with aerial baiting with helicopters.

"But Henry Palaszczuk had a ground force of 400 people spread the bait. It was a great boost to employment...but it was inefficient."

Ms Swepson said it was inevitable Ipswich was infested.

Why should residents be worried if the current failures continue?

People can die from bites and some have gone into anaphylactic shock.

Ms Swepson said there was more to worry about.

The bigger impact is the impact on the economy, lifestyle and agriculture - both stock and crops.

"If they get into any (animals) born on the ground they will take the eyes out of it," Ms Swepson said.

"If you have an infested field you can't get labourers in there because they will get stung.

"If you have fire ants in your yard you can't let your kids go out because they will get stung.

"If a toddler falls on a nest hundreds will run up their leg and sting simultaneously. They impact tourism and can infest sporting fields."

Ms Swepson said Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne needed to go hard with a program of aggressive containment and aerial baiting, which every scientific review had asked for.

"I recommend the program be taken out of the hands of Biosecurity Queensland and put into a stand-alone institution," she said.

"Mr Byrne needs to oversee that to make sure the program gets back on track."

Topics:  fire ants

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