The release of a study of Australian families by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown a dramatic fall in the number of marriages in 2001, and a continued rise in the number of divorces.
Despite Australia’s growing population, over the past ten years the number of marriages has fallen from 113,900 to 103,100, while the number of divorces rose from 41,400 to 55,300, the highest level since the introduction of the Family Law Act in 1976.
The decline in marriage and rising divorce rates coincide with the increase in cohabitation outside marriage, rapidly increasing age of marriage, and figures showing that 29 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women will never marry.
The falling level of commitment to marriage has also been accompanied by a decline in the birthrate, with long-term adverse implications for Australia’s population, its economy, and ultimately, its capacity to sustain its own future.
The Bureau of Statistics study shows that the family unit is under pressure in Australia today, in a way not seen before.
There is a wealth of information which confirms that divorce is linked to a range of indicators of social breakdown, including, for children: acute psychological problems; poorer health; shorter life expectancy; and increased juvenile crime. For parents, divorce reduces life expectancy, and increases substance abuse and psychological disorders.
Yet there is little evidence that governments, or our society, recognise the gravity of the problem, nor the need to make an effective response.
Until there is a realisation that the institution of marriage contributes inestimably to the stability of society and its future prospects, the decline in marriage and rise in divorce will continue.
One aspect of this is the downgrading of motherhood, the subject of a recent book, The Price of Motherhood, by Anne Crittenden.
In reviewing the book recently, Vice-President of the Australian Family Association, Bill Muehlenberg wrote, “Economists, in particular, pay little or no attention to the many important contributions made by mothers to society. If the input they made were included in our Gross Domestic Product calculations, the figures would be vastly different.
“As Crittenden notes, in the modern world, two-thirds of all wealth is created by ‘human skills, creativity, and enterprise – what is known as ‘social capital’.’ That makes parents the major wealth producers in most Western economies.”
He added, “Not only does home care work receive no economic recognition, in many cases it is actually penalised. Women in the paid work force usually get subsidised day care, while mums who stay at home get nothing. This is but one example of how stay-at-home mums are discriminated against in most Western nations.
“The value of a mother to a community is in many ways immeasurable. To raise and nurture the next generation, training them to become citizens of the future, is no mean task. It takes years of sacrifice, commitment and fortitude. Yet this job goes unrecognised and under-praised.
“Mothers on average are estimated to work more than eighty hours a week, more than anyone else in the economy. Yet all this labor is counted as nothing. As Crittenden explains, in a ‘culture that measures worth and achievement almost solely in terms of money, the intensive work of rearing responsible adults counts for little’.”
If the recently-produced series of Work and Family Fact Sheets produced by Senator Vanstone, Minister for Family and Community Services, is any indicator, the response of the Federal Government to this situation has been both confused and self-serving.
On one hand, Senator Vanstone concedes that Australia’s fertility rate is declining, that more marriages are breaking up and the number of families without any income earner are increasing, while on the other, she argues the nonsensical proposition “where women work more, fertility is higher”, and claims that government spending has little or no impact on fertility.
The need for more family-friendly policies has been supported by one of Australia’s best-known sociologists, Dr Moira Eastman, who pointed out that “69 per cent of Australians said in 2001 that being a full-time homemaker was the ideal option for mothers with children under six.” (The Age, July 12, 2002)
This confirmed a 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believed that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school.
One immediate test of the Government’s policy towards the family will be seen in its response to the campaign for paid maternity leave.
Both the Prime Minister and his deputy, National Party leader John Anderson, have publicly stated that mothers who care for their children at home must receive fair recognition for their efforts, compared to women who receive paid maternity leave.
The test will be whether the Government puts its money where its mouth is.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council