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Senate inquiry calls for greater cooperation and transparency in fire ant eradication efforts

There’s still hope the red imported fire ant can be eradicated from Australia with better cooperation and coordination, a federal inquiry has found.

The Senate committee has been looking into efforts to contain the pest since October, visiting affected areas from Brisbane to Newcastle.

Fire ants were first detected in 2001 at the Port of Brisbane and have since been found on the Gold Coast and at Murwillumbah and Wardell in northern New South Wales.

Originating in South America, fire ants inject humans and animals with painful venom and have been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the US since the 1990s.

Modelling published this week by the Australian Institute predicted the pests will cost the economy at least $2.5 billion a year by 2035 if not controlled.

Many fire ants on a 10 cent coin.

The Senate inquiry has recommended a public awareness campaign.(Supplied: Qld Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)

The inquiry chairman, Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan, said the committee had made 10 recommendations, including more transparency from authorities.

“The fire ant response plan for the next five years hasn’t been public yet, to our knowledge, and that needs to happen,” Senator Canavan said.

He said the committee wanted authorities to work with private industry, including farmers and pest control companies.

Mr Canavan said the inquiry had also recommended a significant information campaign be carried out to inform residents in affected areas.

“With more coordination, more cooperation, better oversight, I’m confident that maybe finally we can eradicate fire ants from Australia,” he said.

Funding review

Mr Canavan said the committee had been assured there was enough money to complete containment measures in south-east Queensland, but it recommended a review of funding arrangements.

The federal and state governments in January committed to an eradication program worth $592 million over four years.

A federal government spokesman on Thursday welcomed the inquiry’s report and said its $296 million funding contribution over four years was “a significant increase” compared to “the slow approach during the early years under the former Coalition government”, which the report had also noted.

Senator Matt Canavan. June 22, 2021

Inquiry chairman Senator Matt Canavan.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The Invasive Species Council said the Senate’s findings were a clear call for authorities to continue eradication efforts.

“It’s very encouraging that they’ve picked up on some of the key points we raised with them in evidence,” said spokesperson Reece Pianta.

“It’s a call for the Prime Minister and Minister Murray Watt to act on these recommendations because we need to get fire eradication back on track.

“We cannot fail on fire ants.”

Farmer concerns

Cattle farmer Craig Huf, who owns properties in Tweed and Gatton in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, said producers were concerned about further incursions by the insect.

“If that happens, it’s just another straw that will break the camel’s back,” Mr Huf said.

“There’s a lot of farmers that already are not sustainable because of weed pressure, especially in the far north coast

Man in khaki clothes and hat stands in front of a tree

Craig Huf says farmers are encouraged by recent efforts to control fire ant incursions.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

But he said it was encouraging to see what was being done to control the pest.

“We’re hoping that more emphasis will be put on the border checks and trying to communicate to people how important it is that fire ants don’t get spread down any further across the border.” he said.

“Any news to actually put more funding into it is welcome.”

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