Gavin McLean & Tim Shoebridge, Quarantine! Protecting New Zealand at the Border, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2010, 192pp., ISBN 978 1 877372 82 7. 

Ondine Godtschalk

In recent years, New Zealand has dealt with a number of highly publicised biosecurity breaches, perhaps none capturing the public imagination more than didymo, with its evocative moniker rock snot. But, as Gavin McLean and Tim Shoebridge’s Quarantine! Protecting New Zealand at the Border demonstrates, New Zealand has a long history of battling to keep pests and pestilences from plaguing its shores. Commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Biosecurity New Zealand (MAFBNZ), and produced by the History Group of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Quarantine! offers a detailed account of New Zealand’s regulatory and administrative approach to biosecurity since 1840, tracing the development of one of the world’s most stringent and highly-regarded biosecurity control systems.

Quarantine! is mostly concerned with New Zealand’s external borders, and the measures adopted to patrol the country’s sea and air ports. As the authors’ acknowledge, ‘internal borders’ also play a role in biosecurity management, but all topics need to be confined to be manageable. The bulk of the book focuses on plant and animal quarantine, after an initial chapter on human quarantine. In this first chapter, McLean and Shoebridge provide an informative overview of pre-1939 quarantine practices, adopted to manage the flurry of potentially disease-carrying humans arriving on passenger ships. They canvas attempts to ‘pre-screen’ immigrants before they boarded ships in England, and the establishment—and subsequent disestablishment—of quarantine islands near New Zealand’s main ports, enlivening their narrative with particular accounts of ‘diseased’ ships, and tales of occasional passenger rebellion in the face of detention in quarantine.

The book’s emphasis on New Zealand’s response to various threats at its border means the more complicated aspects of quarantine history—quarantine as a means to control or exclude sections of society considered undesirable for reasons beyond risk to public health—are underexplored: less desirable classes and races wishing to immigrate to New Zealand were subject to greater scrutiny, while debates around quarantine legislation inevitably evoked racist tones in attempts to ‘protect’ New Zealand from the ‘yellow peril’. Also missing are references to promotional literature which flew in the face of quarantine and contagionist concerns by advertising New Zealand’s benevolent climate as an immigration attractor and potential palliative for those looking to recover their health.[1] Finally, given the book’s all-encompassing title, I would have liked the authors to revisit the subject of human quarantine in a later chapter, to touch on contemporary challenges – especially in the wake of SARS and swine flu –  although I accept this may have taken the book a little beyond its history of MAFBNZ ambit.

The remaining chapters, divided chronologically, trace the changing dynamics of animal and plant quarantine in New Zealand. While environmental historians have paid plenty of attention to the plants and animals that have crossed our borders, less attention has been given to the role of biosecurity in helping New Zealand protect its environment and the industries that depend on it – both the agrarian sector and, more recently, the tourist benefit derived from the country’s indigenous flora and fauna. Biosecurity therefore has long been an essential plank in helping the country maintain its viability and identity, although it has not always been an easy task as Quarantine! makes apparent. As the authors note, Department of Agriculture biologist Thomas Kirk thundered in 1895 that ‘at the present time our ports are open for the introduction of every abomination’ and he charged as unpatriotic colonists who took biosecurity risks and therefore put personal profit ahead of the interests of the wider community.[2] With the establishment of fumigation sheds around the country by 1899, quarantine efforts received a significant boost from whence, as suggested by the main thrust of the book’s narrative, the quest to police our borders has been a continuous but mostly successful struggle in the face of ever changing challenges.

McLean and Shoebridge point to the rise in aviation as one of the biggest challenges for border control. While shipping improvements reduced travel times and therefore increased some pests’ chances of surviving the journey (containerization in the 1970s provided a particularly hospitable environment), the start of trans-Tasman and trans-Pacific air flights in 1940 posed a new raft of challenges. Insects, most worryingly the malaria-carrying anopheline mosquito, could survive air flight, and from 1951, aircraft spraying was introduced. Such fears prompted the Department of Health to issue a poster targeting tourists, rather unfortunately headed “Not Welcome in New Zealand”. While the poster went on to explain that malaria and mosquitoes were the unwanted visitors, the Tourist and Publicity Department ensured the poster was modified before too many tourists took offence. Anecdotes such as this scattered throughout the book enliven what could otherwise be a rather dry account of regulatory and administrative change.

Through the lens of plant and animal quarantine we glimpse parallel histories of transportation, technology, science, gendered labour relations and professionalization in New Zealand. For example, McLean and Shoebridge draw on oral histories to profile the work of quarantine officers themselves, highlighting the shift from a male-dominated workplace comprising men from farming backgrounds to an environment requiring tertiary training in sciences, bolstered by internal training and examination. In an all too familiar theme, as women began to join the service from the late 1960s, the authors show how they had to prove themselves in ways that men did not and, while supported by senior staff, they faced resistance in the field from men unable to accept that women could work in challenging quarantine environments such as on ships.

Elsewhere, the authors highlight how the massive increase in traffic and cargo across our border has demanded the development and use of new technologies and processes. As the feasibility of comprehensive hands-on ‘shake and sniff’ inspection diminished, profiling and risk-analysis methods became the main quarantine management tools. Following a series of biosecurity breaches in the 1990s, including the arrival of the white-spotted tussock moth, an injection of funding enabled the introduction of the detector dog programme—leading to the now common sight of dogs inspecting passenger luggage at airports—and the widespread introduction of x-ray machines.

While mostly national in focus, Quarantine! also highlights the way international frameworks increasingly define national responses to issues and problems, particularly when they might impinge upon trade. Increased global management of quarantine/biosecurity requires New Zealand to abide by a number of international regulations, including the 1994 Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement which lays out conditions for countries to negotiate quarantine measures whilst minimising trade restrictions. As McLean and Shoebridge note, such requirements place added pressure on quarantine administration by essentially removing the option of a “zero-risk” approach. The fine line between necessary biosecurity control and the use of such measures for trade protection is an on-going debate, evidenced by New Zealand’s long-running battle with Australia over its ban on New Zealand pip fruit because of fireblight.

The friction between environmental, scientific, policy and trade imperatives is also evident in the final chapter’s discussion of quarantine after deregulation, tariff removal and the public-sector reforms of the 1980s. More open market access prompted an increase in fruit and vegetable imports, along with other high-risk biosecurity items such as cars, while the shift to a user pays model and the introduction of instant fines for passengers carrying biosecurity risk items changed the nature of quarantine administration. Not all the changes have been welcomed: tighter controls at airports prompted a backlash from those who felt harassed compared to the treatment they received in other countries, while the inspection of VIPs’ baggage caused the odd diplomatic stoush. And in a back-to-the-future moment, McLean and Shoebridge detail how pre-screening in country of origin has been reintroduced, but this time for produce and products rather than people.

Quarantine! is a nicely presented and colourful book, and the care and attention over its appearance enhances its accessibility. Generously illustrated, the text makes good use of cutaway boxes to provide informative asides or biographies of key figures in a way that does not interrupt the main narrative. However, the insertion of a two-page profile of ex-quarantine officer Jenny Lynch at the conclusion of the final chapter does make for a slightly unusual end point. Although well-footnoted, the omission of a bibliography/reference list, or at least a further reading list, is perhaps unfortunate, given the book’s likely appeal to school students. Unfortunately the endnotes for the Prologue appear to have been unintentionally omitted: hopefully this oversight can be corrected in any subsequent reprintings.

All up, Quarantine! provides an informative and accessible account of quarantine administration in New Zealand and would make a good reference text for anyone embarking on research that touches on biosecurity in New Zealand. And as a record of public history, Quarantine! would provide an excellent resource, and enriching context, for anyone working in this area of government.

[1] Linda Bryder, ‘“A Health Resort for Consumptives”: Tuberculosis and Immigration to New Zealand, 1880 – 1914, Medical History, 1996, 40, pp. 453-471. Significant work has been undertaken in Australia on the ways quarantine was used to bolster a ‘white Australia’, see for example Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

[2] Department of Agriculture Annual Report, 1895, p. 105, quoted in Gavin McLean and Tim Shoebridge, Quarantine! Protecting New Zealand at the Border (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2010), p. 48.