Australia warned to wage all-out war on fire-ant menace

Tracey Ferrier |

Fire ants taking hold in Australia could inflict a $2 billion annual hit on the national economy.
Fire ants taking hold in Australia could inflict a $2 billion annual hit on the national economy.

Australia must continue its decades-long war on fire ants but big changes are needed to defeat the exotic super pest, an inquiry has found.

More than 23 years have passed since red imported fire ants were found in Brisbane and authorities have been trying to stamp them out since.

Federal senators have spent months reviewing eradication efforts in southeast Queensland and handed down their report on Thursday.

They found Australia can’t afford to give up the fight given estimates of a $2 billion annual hit to the national economy if they break out of the southeast and become entrenched.

Witnesses told the inquiry agricultural output could plummet by 40 per cent, the health system could be strained by an extra 100,000 medical appointments per year and native species could vanish if the high aggressive, swarming ants get away.

Fire ant nest
Fire ant nests have been found in southeast Queensland. (Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS)

Other nations spend billions of dollars a year to limit agricultural losses but also to keep parks, sports fields and residential backyards fire ant-free.

Senators have called for a fresh review to determine if $1.28 billion – committed by federal, state and territory governments to 2027 – is enough, and if it isn’t to come up with a new figure.

They say governments must guarantee an uninterrupted flow of cash to end the stop-start funding woes that have hampered eradication.

They want the government to consider whether a new model is needed to deliver the program, including an independent statutory agency and a nationally led commission.

And they want a national awareness campaign and more border spot checks on materials that are being moved out of southeast Queensland.

The Invasive Species Council was among those to address the inquiry and has welcomed the recommendations, saying the outcome of the fire ants war will depend on what governments do next.

Fire ants campaigner Reece Pianta says there’s no time to lose, with fire ants recently detected in NSW.

“I’m impressed by the committee’s report. It’s a road map to follow and the ball is now in the Australian government’s court,” he’s told AAP.

He says Australians must understand fire ants pose a threat to their way of life and everyone has something to lose.

“History will judge the government that walks away from fire ants very harshly, particularly while there’s still a chance to do something about it.”

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan chairs the committee that ran the inquiry and says it’s time to end funding shortfalls, excessive bureaucracy and transparency issues that have plagued eradication efforts.

“It’s imperative that all Australian governments act quickly before they spread past the point where eradication is still possible,” he wrote in the inquiry’s report.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson sat on the inquiry and believes its recommendations are too weak.

“Eradication efforts to date have not been adequately resourced (but) more funding reviews are not the solution,” he told AAP.

“The government doesn’t need any further leeway to explore its options – it needs to act.”

AAP has sought comment from federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt.

AAP