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Family policy is the issue

By Barry Maley - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2002

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’ measure.


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 issue.

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 child payments.


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 rates.

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.

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About the Author

Dr Barry Maley is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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