The passing of the Quarantine Act 1908 and its implementation in 1909 provided a national approach to the prevention and eradication of imported plant, animal and human diseases. Prior to this, individual states had been responsible for quarantine measures. The Royal Australian Mint issued a special coin in 2008 to commemorate the centenary of the Act.
As an island continent, Australia has a degree of protection from exotic pests and diseases. This has been particularly important for a country that has a significant agricultural and farming sector. As well as containing the spread of human disease, quarantine regulations ensured the “protection of the economy, environment and human health from negative impacts associated with entry, establishment or spread of exotic pests and diseases”.
In Australia’s early days, livestock and plant materials were freely imported from overseas. As a result, there were outbreaks of diseases such as phylloxera in grapevines, cattle tick, and foot and mouth disease. Concern about risks to rural industries was already being expressed by the time of Federation in 1901, and the power to make laws regarding quarantine was enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
The 1908 Act created the Federal Quarantine Bureau. In the same year, the Government Bureau of Microbiology was established to do research in this field.
The Act provided that:
No imported animals or plants, and no hay, straw, fodder, litter, fittings, clothing, utensils, appliances or packages used on any vessel or on any overseas installation in connexion with imported animals or plants shall, until released from quarantine, be moved, dealt with, or interfered with except by authority and in accordance with this Act and the regulations.
At the time, the only access to Australia was by sea. Under the Quarantine Act, quarantine officers were appointed to control the importation of plants and animals through specified ports. They had the power to order that plants, animals or goods be sent to a quarantine station before being released to the importer, or to destroy any plants or goods seen to be infected with “any noxious insect or pest”.
The Act was administered by the Department of Trade and Customs until 1921 when the responsibility was transferred to the Department of Health. In 1984, the policy and administration of animal and plant quarantine aspects of the Quarantine Act were transferred to the then Department of Primary Industries. This function was administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) from 1995 to 2012.
The Quarantine Act 1908-1973 was amended many times until its repeal and replacement by the Biosecurity Act in 2015.