A funny thing happened along the way to the Federal Election – commentators began to wake up to what is arguably the most pressing social and economic problem facing Australia.
When John Howard announced his innovative, though modest, incentive for mothers to stay home with their first-born baby – and virtually no one slated him for “wanting to keep women in the home” – it marked a possible turning point in the debate on family policy.
Even a couple of years ago Howard would have faced a barrage of criticism from the harridans of the feminist movement accusing him of being against women’s progress, being “stuck in the 1950s”, etc.
Instead, the criticism of his being old-fashioned was muted, and came from the most conservative old-fashioned feminists such as Women’s Electoral Lobby’s Eva Cox who, without even a hint of irony, accused Howard of trying to inflict “social control” on the country.
Birth rate worry
However, the mainstream commentators sought to link the policy with the need to do something about Australia’s falling birth rate – something which has been seen as a non-issue by most journalists and policy-makers until very recently.
Well within two decades more people will be dying each year in Australia than being born, and as each year passes the burden on young taxpayers coming into the workforce to pay for the cost of their parents’ retirement, housing and healthcare needs is going to increase.
The consequences of a falling birthrate affect almost all areas of government, because the burden of an ageing and unproductive population will severely curtail the capacity of government to do other things like running a proper defence force or building roads.
Admittedly, the dawning of the enormity of this problem relates more to base self-interest than to any change in ideology.
As the baby-boomers begin to face old age and all the connected worries of their expensive twilight years, they are suddenly waking up to the fact they should have had more babies themselves to pay for their care. Though none are saying so publicly yet, it will soon become apparent that the younger generation is going to have to do the job of producing more baby taxpayers.
Of course, there was criticism galore of Howard’s “baby bonus” policy but this was more to do with it being too paltry to convince women to stay at home.
Others slammed it for not being means-tested, and for the fact that women would need to be earning $60,000-odd to gain the maximum tax rebate of $2,500.
And just to show how totally out of touch The Sydney Morning Herald is with ordinary battling Australians, it went out and interviewed a new mother the day after Howard’s policy launch.
The struggling mum earned $240,000 as a business consultant, and complained that a $2,500 tax return was simply “not enough money to pay for a year with a baby with the birth, clothing and hiring help”.
However, the fact that the critique was all about the delivery, rather than the philosophy behind the policy, may mark a significant shift in the debate about families and taxation.
Some of the commentariat may also be beginning to grasp the fact that a sizeable proportion of women actually want to be with their child during the formative first few years; that childcare has considerable shortcomings; and what is more, that paid work is not all it is cracked up to be.
Under John Howard’s plan primary care givers – mostly women – would receive a tax refund of up to $2,500 a year for five years for their first baby born after July 1 this year.
To gain the maximum refund a mother would have to be earning $52,000 and stay at home for the first five years.
However, low income earners and those not working before the birth of their child would still be able to receive a minimum of $500.
In all 600,000 (mostly) mothers would be expected to benefit from the scheme once it is fully operational.
The main thrust of the Liberals’ policy idea was to make it easier for families to balance the demands of earning money and building careers with raising children.
However, several political commentators linked Howard’s baby bonus with the need to help stop Australia’s declining birth rate.
The Australian‘s national affairs editor, Mike Steketee, revealed that Howard’s idea had been borrowed from Singapore, but said that it did not do what was necessary to halt Australia’s “frightening” ageing population.
Despite the growing awareness of the ageing population problem, we are still a long way in Australia from a consensus on the material and social benefits of encouraging a parent to stay at home with the child in the formative years.
The fragile post-1960s dogma that government policy and funding should be directed at encouraging women to work is still held by most of the élites. The feminist movement is still what has always been – anti-choice.
This ignores the fact that up to 70 per cent of women do stay at home for the first year of a baby’s life, and that most women would stay longer if able to afford it.
If you are a female corporate lawyer earning $250,000 a year high in a luxurious office block in a stimulating work environment – staying at home with baby might appear worse than solitary confinement.
If you work in a hot and depressing shirt factory earning $25,000 a year – because your husband’s wage is almost all swallowed up by the mortgage – long, joyful hours with a newborn child might appear like heaven.
On a weighted scale of one to 10, most workplaces and wages are closer to the second scenario than the first.
In other words, given the choice and financial incentives, a considerable proportion of women would actually choose stay home and enjoy their child’s miraculous early development.
Commentators have not begun to say any of the above – yet, but the fact that their criticism of the stay-at-home incentive is muted, is itself significant.