Getting Back to the Clucky Country

by Jeff Fleischer

(Sydney Morning Herald, December 2, 2003)

(By Cynthia Banham, Jeff Fleischer and Mark Coulton)

Australia is a very materialistic nation. Parents want to give their children more – more expensive, private education, and more overseas trips.

And it is this desire, says the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, that is contributing to the falling fertility rate, because the only way to give children more is to have fewer of them.

“We are a very, very material nation and the current generations want everything,” Senator Vanstone told the Herald, in the week that Australia’s population passed 20 million.

“I don’t mean that in a necessarily greedy sense, but they want to be able to give their kids more – as previous generations have done – [and] they can’t see where that’s going to come from.”

Senator Vanstone said the movement of women into the workforce a generation ago meant that two people in the family were suddenly working, and bringing in extra money. But she asked: “What’s the next lot do, have three people working?

“So I think what’s impacting on it is if we have fewer kids . . . we can give the kids we have more in a material sense, which in my personal view is not necessarily the right way to go.”

This trend – combined with more women going to university and postponing pregnancy to further their careers – has seen the fertility rate fall to its lowest, 1.75 children per woman, Senator Vanstone said.

For Angelina Hussein, 28, who had her third child, Rachel, last Saturday, money is a concern because her children are close in age and only her husband, Mark, is working. But raising her children was worth balancing expenses and making sacrifices.

“A lot of your lifestyle does change, but that’s a choice you have to be ready to make. Your days of going to movies or going shopping might end. But you can’t compare that to your own child. When you’re holding him or her in your arms, there’s no better feeling.

“I just think it’s easier when you’re young to start a family. Work will always be there. But their first footsteps and other things like that, you only get to see once.”

One of five siblings, Ms Hussein had her son, Sebastian, at age 22. She moved to Australia from Fiji in 1996, just before the birth of her second child, Sharon. She has studied to be a medical receptionist, and plans to work part-time once the children are in school.

“Some mums prefer to go back to work right away – it all depends on how people make choices. I know there’s nannies or others out there that can help, but it was important to me to be home with my children.”

The businessman and political hopeful Malcolm Turnbull wants to shift the population debate away from immigration towards encouraging more women to have children.

He said European countries with birth rates below 1.2, such as Italy, Spain and Greece, were dying. “At the peak of our technological achievement, the Western world appears to have lost the will to reproduce itself.”

Mr Turnbull sees it as more serious than global warming or terrorism. “It is clear that even in countries with very low fertility rates women express a desire to have, on average, more than two children. Yet they are clearly not realising their aspiration.”

He wants Australia to revalue motherhood and fatherhood, make workplaces family friendly, and promote the traditional family unit with the aim of producing more marriages and fewer divorces. He would also replace the complex system of government child-care support with a single payment to each mother for each child.

But as Australia’s population hits 20 million, Senator Vanstone says it is not for the Government to wave a “magic wand” and stem the declining birthrate. She refers to studies showing that inducements such as the baby bonus and paid maternity leave do not necessarily translate into higher fertility rates.

Instead, what was required was a change in attitude about the return of women to work after having children. “If a woman feels that she can have more children and easily get back into a good job, she’s more likely to have more children.”

But how to achieve such a revolution? Lots of talk about it, she said, and women at companies with progressive policies should promote those employers.

Asked whether the Government should increase the immigration intake – nearly 110,000 last financial year – to offset the lowers birth rates, Senator Vanstone – a “fan” of immigration – said it was for the cabinet to decide whether the country could cope with more migrants.

This story is part two of a five-day series. Tomorrow: Is immigration the answer?

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