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Birthrate at historically low levels; difficulty in developing population policy.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: The federal opposition says Australia desperately needs a population plan to combat declining birth rate, diminishing workforce and more dependent aging population. The ALP view is supported by demographers and others, warning that the federal government needs to develop strategies to address more than simple immigration needs. For that, read ‘encouragement for women to address childbirth rather than career-building’. When Jeff Kennett was Premier a few months ago in Victoria, he got into a lot of trouble for suggesting that women need to have more babies. Rebecca Barrett reports.


REBECCA BARRETT:  With Australia’s birthrate at historically low levels and forecast to fall further, addressing population growth would appear to be a high priority. But population policy is a controversial area, as former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, found out earlier this year when he addressed a girls’ school in Melbourne.


JEFF KENNETT: Women are not producing enough offspring to simply maintain our population levels. In fact, the average figure for every female in this country, they are only producing 1.8 children.


REBECCA BARRETT: While his comments drew giggles from his audience, elsewhere they were greeted with derision. Dr Bob Birrell is the Director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University. He concedes the federal government could face similar criticism by encouraging women to have children, but must take the risk.


BOB BIRRELL: I think that what we really need to contemplate for the future is how we can arrange circumstances so that women can do both jobs, with the assistance of their spouse - that is a job in the workplace and a job at the home - but makes raising children a genuine worthwhile option.


REBECCA BARRETT: But how then do you encourage women to have children without offending them at the same time?


BOB BIRRELL: There are some hurdles to jump there. I think what we’re saying here is that Australia does face a major social problem if we don’t increase our fertility levels, and obviously men and women have to play their part. Now, I think the best way to avoid that kind of reaction is to insist that men have got to play an important role in these changes as well.


REBECCA BARRETT:  The Labor Party is pushing for a family-friendly policy that not only helps with an aging population, but gives women more choice. Opposition spokesman on population, Martin Ferguson, says such a policy must also look at ways to achieve a desirable, sustainable population to help Australia reach its cultural, economic and social potential. But the onus is not just on the government to address declining birthrates. Employers, too, have been criticised for not doing enough. Mark Paterson, the Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes there has been a dramatic improvement in how flexible employers are when it comes to children.


MARK PATERSON:  We jointly host the Work and Family Awards each year, and what we’re seeing coming through that process is an extraordinary array of family-friendly policies being introduced in businesses of all shapes and sizes and in all different industry sectors. I think that, as we focus on enterprise negotiations, you will see an increase in the focus on family-friendly policies, people will determine outcomes that meet the needs, both of the business and of those working within the business.


REBECCA BARRETT:  Dr Bob Birrell disagrees. He says employers are becoming less sympathetic to family needs.


BOB BIRRELL: The trend, I think, is actually in the opposite direction, that there’s more pressure on men and women to compete on a full-time basis, that we’ve barely begun to think through what’s required for family-friendly policies.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: Dr Bob Birrell of Monash University with Rebecca Barrett.