The preoccupation with paid maternity leave and our falling fertility
rate is shifting attention away from deeper problems. Particular issues
such as low birth rates and maternity leave need to be put in a broader
context, otherwise family policy will continue to miss the point. And the
point is that we are confronted with a family system that is dysfunctional
in many ways.
We know the ways – high divorce rates, high ex-nuptial birth rates,
more than one child in four living apart from one of its natural parents,
extensive abuse and neglect of children, the highest juvenile crime rates
in our history, and historically high taxation of families with dependent
children. Falling fertility might be, in part, a symptom of wider family
malaise. Attend to the causes of the malaise and improvement in fertility
might follow. Even if it does not, tens of thousands of children and
adults will be better off and we will be a better and stronger society. In
any case, attempting to raise birth rates by bribes and coercion would be
repugnant. Couples and children are not instruments and commodities to
serve a national breeding exercise.
As the Treasurer, Mr Costello, has pointed out, there is no established
connection between generous paid maternity leave provisions and higher
fertility. Sweden has had very generous paid leave, giving mothers strong
wages support and absence from work for more than a year, yet its
fertility rate has fallen from 2.1 children per woman in 1990 to about 1.5
per woman today. As a fertility raiser, paid maternity leave is not the
answer. It continues to be justified, however, as a ‘gender equity’
A woman, it is said, has no choice but to give up work to have a child,
losing income and job continuity. Men, on the other hand, do not face
these disadvantages, so there is inequality caused by a ‘gendered’
society arranged by men to suit their interests at the expense of women.
This, it is claimed, is unjust and coercive. Removing the workplace
disadvantages of maternity will put men and women on an equal work footing
and make it easier for mothers to combine work and having children.
In fact, there is no injustice or coercion involved here unless we
believe pregnancy and parturition are injustices inflicted upon women by
some social agency. But pregnancy and parturition are not social artefacts
emerging from a "gendered" society. They are biological
phenomena, not social ones. They are "being a female" facts of
life that become operative when certain free choices are made. They are
not imposed justices or inequalities. The choice of work, for men as for
women, forecloses all sorts of options and opportunities for satisfying
alternative fulfilments. Paid maternity leave is not a gender equity
Nobody has ever put together a comprehensive and proven fertility
theory linking all the factors that influence birth rates. At a very
general level, we know that the costs of having children are crucial. But
the nature and causes of the costs vary from one society, and from one
social group, to another. In Australia as in many developed countries, the
‘costs’ of the jobs and salaries that women have to give up to have a
child are important. Family taxation is important. The size of the welfare
bill and how it affects family incomes matters. Confidence in the future
(low inflation, low interest rates, continued employment) is important.
And the durability of the parent’s marriage or relationship is
important. Yet at the present time, any parent faces a high risk of being
left alone with a child or of being separated from it.
There are three possible initiatives to deal with some of these issues,
irrespective of any fertility implications.
The first is to give more rational relief to families in handling the
costs of rearing children. I have suggested that for every dependent
child, irrespective of family income, a universal allowance or tax credit
worth $4000-00 per annum be introduced and replace all other child
payments and subsidies, including child care.
This would achieve three things. It would be an administratively
simple, flexible, and fair way of helping to meet the costs of children.
It would treat employed and non-employed mothers equally, removing a
source of division between them. It would recognise that mothers rearing
children are making an economic and social contribution of no less
importance than work in the market. Doing this would cost no more than is
already being spent on a complicated and inequitable mess of family and
The second initiative is to continue building confidence in the future
and encouraging couples to take long time horizons through reductions in
unemployment, reform of welfare, continued low inflation, and low interest
The third is the most difficult, but it will have to be tackled sooner
or later. We must try to restore the status of marriage as the durable and
serious bargain between men and women that they, and their children, need.