In July in a speech to the National Press Club, treasurer Josh Frydenberg urged Australian women to have more babies. He was lighthearted about it (well, he can be, of course, it isn’t his body or financial future that will bear the brunt or the baby). “I won’t go as far as to say, like Peter Costello, one for the mother, one for the father and one for the country. But I can say people should feel encouraged about the future, and the more children we have across the country, together with migration, we will build our population growth and that will be good for the economy.”
A new baby boom may well be good for the economy, but the question increasingly being asked by women of child-bearing age is whether it will be good for either them or for the children they may give birth to. Dr Ginni Mansberg, a GP in the Sydney suburb of Sans Souci, has noticed an interesting trend at her practice this year. “I’ve had patients who had stopped taking the pill to get pregnant coming back in for another script telling me ‘now’s not the right time.’” And the statistics back her observation to the hilt.
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Australia’s current birthrate is 12.561 births per 1,000 people, that’s down by 1.25% from last year. The year before, the birth rate declined by 1.23%. For the decade between 2008 and 2019, birth rates also declined but at a much slower rate. 2008 was the last time birth rates declined by above 1% and that was the year of the GFC, of course. It appears women also vote with their fertility, and when times get tough they decide – quite understandably as Mansberg’s patients put it – that it’s not a good idea to reproduce.
Frankly, who can blame them? All of us agree that 2020 has been the year from hell and 2019 was not much better, certainly not for Australia. After a horrific drought that made even rainforests vulnerable to fire, we spent much of the last summer choking on bushfire smoke even if we lived in the inner city. And in January, the Australian Medical Association included pregnant women in the list of people vulnerable to adverse health effects from that smoke. All but the most fervent climate change denialists know that despite this year’s rain, we will face mega blazes again and soon. Not to mention floods, droughts, dust storms, cyclones and all the other “big weather” that global warming is bringing our way. And younger people tend to both accept the science of climate change and understand that they are the ones whose future will be blighted by it. Why would they want to bring another generation into the world as long as the generation currently in power, including Frydenberg, stubbornly refuses to do anything much about it?
Anyone who did have a baby in the last 12 to 18 months has my deepest sympathy. Thanks to Covid-19, they have had to deal with pregnancy with much less support than usual. Husbands, partners and others close to the expectant mother have not been able to attend ultrasounds or obstetrician’s appointments. And only a partner or support person can attend the birth. New grandparents were not able to see grandchildren during lockdown or offer the new parents any of the usual support. And being shut in a small apartment with a small baby (or young children of any description) is a trial for even the most patient and loving of parents. What it must have been like trying to entertain a toddler in hotel quarantine does not bear thinking about.
So, given all of this, not to mention the usual “motherhood penalty” (according to the American Association of University Women mothers earn 70c to every dollar earned by fathers), don’t you think Frydenberg might have thought just a little bit about what might actually encourage women to reproduce?
Oddly, he and his government appear to have done precisely the opposite. First, they dedicated 0.038% of the total budget deficit to measures specifically aimed at women. A spend so small it is positively derisory. They did nothing to make childcare more affordable, despite Australia having the fourth-most expensive childcare system in the world. Add that to the fact that many, many more Australian parents send their children to fee-charging schools than in the three countries with childcare more expensive than ours (UK, US and New Zealand) and the proposed hike in university fees for many subjects and you can see why prospective parents are anxiously doing their sums about how many – if any – children they can actually afford.
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Then there is the lack of any stimulus or support for female-dominated industries, the tax disincentives – rising to an effective workplace disincentive rate of up to 120% if they want to re-enter the workforce full-time according to KPMG – that keep women trapped in low-paying part-time and casual work. Or how all that snowballs over a lifetime to create our current reality – that the face of poverty is increasingly a woman over 60. Even the fastest-growing group among the homeless – women over 55 – found nothing in the budget for them.
No wonder GPs such as Mansberg are currently reissuing more scripts for contraceptives. Many young women just need to look at the fate of their own mothers, aunts and grandmothers to see that the price we charge women for deciding to become mothers is just too high to pay.