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One-off baby payment an idea whose time may have arrived

By Malcolm Turnbull - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

There are many ways society can boost the fertility rate that don't involve government handouts.

There are two approaches one can take to the decline in fertility. One is to shrug it off and say there is nothing we can do about it. (Now it is one thing to be blasè if the fertility rate is 1.7 children per adult woman as it is today; it is quite another if, in a few years, it is heading down below 1.5.) The other is to do something about it.

As a political person I am puzzled why there has not been an authoritative, detailed survey of women of different ages and backgrounds finding out what they think.


As a general principle, however, I believe a good litmus test to apply to the various family policies on offer is to ask: is this initiative worthwhile in and of itself? Is it equitable in the sense that it assists women in a wide variety of situations? Does it improve choice or, to use a trendy word, does it empower rather than disempower?

It is then a question of weighing the initiative's costs both against other similarly directed initiatives and against other budgetary priorities.

Paid maternity leave is a controversial case in point. Nobody would argue that paid maternity leave is anything but a good thing. Employers who provide it should be applauded. The question is this: given the limited resources available to the community, is taxpayer-funded maternity leave the best and most effective means of helping women to balance the demands of work and family? Is there a risk that taxpayer-funded paid maternity leave would assist only those women who were in full-time work at the time of the pregnancy?

One thing is clear: there is a vast diversity in women's choices about work and family. One size does not fit all and additional public support for families must, as far as possible, be seen to support women with children without favouring those at home or in work or, as is the case with a majority, somewhere in between.

My own, admittedly inexpert, sense is that we should seriously consider replacing what is a fairly complex system of child and child-care support with a single payment to each mother per child. In principle is there any reason why the state should spend differential amounts in respect of a child based on whether the mother of that child works full-time, part-time or cares for the child at home? There are a number of other areas where we can usefully promote positive social values which may have an impact on fertility but, in any event, are worth doing in and of themselves:

* We must change our work culture to make it genuinely supportive of parents with responsibilities for children.


You do not need to be a social scientist to recognise that while women may have broken through the glass ceiling it is all too often with the tacit proviso that they leave their children behind.

* One possible way of encouraging better workplace flexibility would be to require companies to publish in their annual reports details of measures they have undertaken to promote a pro-family workplace. This would be done in the same way companies disclose, for example, their corporate governance arrangements.

* We should not be afraid to make the case for marriage. There is a very high correlation (higher than there is for race or poverty) in most of the research between the absence of the biological father and child poverty, juvenile crime and sexual abuse.

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This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on on September 19 2002. It is an edited version of a lecture given by Malcolm Turnbull at Sydney University on September 17. The full text of the article can be downloaded from here (PDF file, 170Kb).

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About the Author

Malcolm Turnbull is is the federal Leader of the Opposition and member for Wentworth. You can see his web site here:

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