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Tuesday, 14 May 1968

Dr PATTERSON (Dawson) - I should like to take the opportunity in this debate to speak briefly on a problem which has developed or is developing into a serious and major problem in Queensland with regard to land development. I am glad that the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser) is sitting at the table, because this problem is one in which I hope he will become interested. It is causing grave concern to the Queensland Government. Many people in the cattle industry have asked me to bring it to the notice of the Government, through the Minister. I refer to the spread of Harrisia cactus in Queensland and the inability of the cattle industry and the scientific and technical personnel of the Queensland Government to halt the frightening growth of Harrisia cactus throughout some of the best land in central and northern Queensland. It has reached the point where it must be described as a serious situation.

With present technologcial knowhow I believe that one cannot be accused of being an alarmist or a pessimist as far as Harrisia cactus is concerned. It is, in fact, the gravest problem facing land development in Queensland today because it is a problem that cannot be solved biologically. Up to the present time, all efforts to control it or to eradicate it by biological means have failed. Up to the present time all efforts to control or to eradicate it by spraying have been only partially successful. It seems that the only way in which some success can be achieved is by deep ploughing and sowing down to crops and pastures. Already Harrisia cactus is sweeping into AreaIII of the brigalow land. The Federal Government did not take this matter into account when it passed legislation in respect of the brigalow scheme. The area concerned covers approximately 5 million acres. This is some of the best brigalow land in the Mackenzie-Isaac area. The performance of this land is being threatened by the potential spread of Harrisia cactus. It resembles, in its thickest form an octopus whose tentacles are forever creeping forward. It breeds profusely. It has tentacles of up to 2 to 3 feet long. It is covered with spikes. It has been commonly referred to as snake cactus. It is even perhaps more serious than the Queensland Government realises. 1 doubt it, but that could be so, because many landholders are a little dubious about whether they should report the presence of Harrisia cactus on their land because if they report it, under the present leasehold conditions they run the risk of forfeiting some of their best land.

The Harrisia Cactus, or moonlight cactus as it is called, is proving to be a far greater menace than the dreaded prickly pear because, as I said before, there is no biological means of controlling it. Cactoblastis was effective in controlling prickly pear, which invaded and devastated millions of acres of some of the best land in the Darling Downs and Maranoa areas, but it is completely useless against Harrisia Cactus. To give honourable members some idea of the danger of this plant, I mention that an important meeting of graziers was held recently in Queensland at which it was suggested that a $500,000 reward be offered to any scientist who could produce a means of controlling or eradicating this scourge. That will give honourable members an idea of what it means to the industry and the gravity of this problem not only to Queensland but to the rest of Australia.

The Federal Government cannot afford to stand off and offer various excuses, such as that such problems are State responsibilities and that constitutional difficulties prevent it entering into the sphere of the States. The Commonwealth must throw its scientific and financial resources behind the Queensland Government and the livestock industry in a concentrated scientific attempt to control and eradicate this creeping menace. The brains of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation should be marshalled against it. The Government must consider granting financial help to the Queensland Government for more research or more positive action about land clearing. Land holders should be helped to clear more land and thus control this pest. There is no reason why the Income Tax Act, for example, could not be amended to allow greater expenditure to be diverted to the control and eradication of Harrisia Cactus.

All efforts to date have failed to find a biological means of controlling this cactus. This is very serious. It has spread in the short space of 33 years since it was first reported to be growing in the bush at Collinsville. Plantings have been reported as far as Goondiwindi, Charleville, Cunnnamulla and northern New South Wales. Its greatest intensification is in the central and northern Queensland areas. One do-:s not need to be a mathematician to know that its rate of germination and spread, in terms of acres annually, is now something like the population explosion. Its growth is frightening and is almost uncontrollable. It is frightening to the State Government and to the land holders on which this creeping menace has been found.

The point is that no-one can afford to be complacent about this. Honourable members who represent electorates in New South Wales and even Victoria cannot afford to be complacent simply because Harrisia Cactus is at present confined to Queensland and has its greatest growth in northern and central Queensland. They should not be complacent because it has simply spread from a pot plant imported from Argentina. The pot plant was thrown into the bush in Queensland and the cactus has spread in the softwood scrub and Brigalow lands. As I said earlier, it has been sighted at Goondiwindi, Charleville, Cullamulla and in northern New South Wales. Only isolated plants have been found in northern New South Wales but elsewhere there are areas of tremendous growth, areas as big as this Parliament House.

I doubt whether there is a more frightening scene than to see Harrisia Cactus take over the land. The area represents a giant mass of green creeping jungle with spikes. It is rendering thousands of acres of the best brigalow and softwood scrub soils useless. Studies to date indicate that the cactus is moving south. Studies overseas by Doctor Mann and others have shown that the ideal breeding and growth conditions in Australia could be around the 25th parallel. This means around the Darling Downs area of Queensland. There is no certainty that it will not spread farther south. Many areas with a temperature above 30 degrees fahrenheit must be classified as areas that potentially may be highly susceptible to this cactus in future. The rapidity of growth of this cactus can be gauged by the fact that it is moving into areas through the brigalow and has been sighted in southern areas of Queensland. Isolated plants are moving into New South Wales. Because of the intensity of the Harrisia Cactus or moonlight cactus, because of the areas that it is now infesting, it stands to reason that as we get more floods in the Burdekin and the Fitzroy Basin they will bring the cactus further south.

Experience so far suggests that the most successful measure of eradication is land clearing, repeated deep ploughing and the sowing of improved pastures or summer and winter crops. Of course, only a relatively small portion of land can be cleared and sown for pasture and crops. The Harrisia cactus likes the better land, naturally, where there is a greater supply of plant food. However, it is no respecter of land class; it moves into the poorer areas - the elevated areas where the land cannot be ploughed.

I bring this matter to the notice of the Minister and the House because it is a serious problem. Its gravity can be gauged by the fact that the graziers are now seeking a sponsor who will offer a reward of $500,000 to a scientist who can bring forward a method to eradicate this menace. This once again brings home the lesson of the introduction of exotic plants by enthusiastic gardeners. In this case the noxious plant was released from a pot plant that was brought into Collinsville in 1900. The enthusiastic housewife gave pieces of the plant away, and in the end some of it finished up being thrown into the bush. The first reported sighting in the bush was in 1935, and from then the plant has proliferated. Areas between Collinsville and Charters Towers and the Mackenzie-Isaac district, and the Belyando and Suttor areas, are now heavily infested with this cactus.

The gravity of this menace has been accepted by the Queensland Government, the present Minister for Lands, and the previous Minister for Lands who said that although large sums have already been expended by the Department of Lands and landholders in endeavouring to control the cactus by spraying with chemicals, clearing and cultivation, it is quite clear that control has not yet been achieved and it is indeed probable that the area infested is outstripping the area over which control is being obtained. The State Government has not admitted defeat; it is working hard on the problem. It is quite obvious that before the menace gets out of hand the Federal Government, through an agency such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, must come to the help of landholders and certainly the State Government in controlling this menace.

If money is needed, it should be provided. When one has no control, one worries. One would certainly worry if there were no control of an exotic disease such as foot-and-mouth disease and animals had to be shot when they contracted it. As there is no biological control of Harrisia cactus, the Government must worry about it. When a landowner sees it, the only way for him to get rid of it is to dig it out and hope that it does not regerminate through its complicated root structure. Plenty of chemical research is going on to destroy this cactus. In the chemical field, arsenic pentoxide will destroy it to ground level but will not destroy the root system.

Various other work is proceeding. The important thing is that so far we have not discovered any biological control for the eradication of this cactus. The spread of this cactus is the greatest problem affecting land development in the area. Its march is east, west, north and south. The only thing that slows it down is a temperature of below 30 degrees. If we can benefit from the experience of Argentina, we know that given a temperature between 30 degrees and 114 degrees fahrenheit and provided there is sufficient moisture in the soil for part of the year, harrisia cactus will thrive.

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