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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24324

Senator HARRADINE (2:43 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. Could the minister explain the virtual absence of specific new measures in the budget to remove disincentives to parenting? Could she point to any new measures to make it easier for women to combine work and family responsibilities? How does the minister respond to criticism that the budget is not family friendly and does nothing to address the impediments to family and the serious decline in fertility rates, which are now well below replacement level in Australia?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Can I respond to your question in a number of ways. First of all, I think it is important to highlight that general economic management is very important to families and their capacity to have as many children as they might choose to have. It is not always a function of specific measures. For example, and I will just give one because there are other things I want to move on to: an economy where interest rates are low means that low income families can more quickly pay off their mortgage. Families with a mortgage of, say, $100,000 are thousands of dollars better off a year as a consequence of good economic management by this government. Low interest rates put more money in their pockets because they are not paying off the bank, and that means they have more disposable income to use on a variety of things. I make the general point first that it is not only budget specific measures that help families. Good sound economic management in a whole variety of ways helps them. It helps the main breadwinner or both to keep their jobs, for example, and all of these things impact on fertility.

Senator Harradine asked for a specific measure in this budget: if I look back over all the things that this government has done for families, I see that, because of the changes we have made in relation to family payments, families are some $40 a fortnight better off—those changes were made in the previous budget, I acknowledge. I wonder whether we can address families in every budget to the extent that we did last time, because the last budget was a tremendously family friendly budget.

But I can think of one initiative, Senator—and I feel sure there will be more in other portfolios. But in my own portfolio there is more funding for child-care places. This is of great assistance to families who want to combine parenting with the opportunity to maintain their own skills and perhaps earn money in the workplace because they want to give more materially to the children that they have. More child-care places present that opportunity.

You referred to the declining fertility rates in Australia. I am not sure that that is something governments can entirely change, although measures they make have an impact on these things. A report released in April this year showed that we had a fertility rate of 3.6 in 1961, 1.75 in 1999 and the replacement fertility rate is 2.1. So in that sense we have a very low fertility rate but not dissimilar to that in a number of other developed Western economies.

The last point I would like to make is just a personal view that I have in relation to fertility. There might be a number of explanations vis-a-vis government policies over a long period of time, but I think certainly my generation realise that their parents did everything they could to give their children more than they their parents had, and they want to be able to do the same for their children. I think some people are choosing to have fewer children so that they can actually give those children more in a material sense. You may not share that view; you may not think it is an appropriate view for parents to have; but I believe they do. Some people make a decision that they will have two children instead of four because they might want to send them to a private school; they might want to do a whole range of things for them. They make a conscious decision to limit the number of children they have so that they can do for them materially what they want to do. (Time expired)

Senator HARRADINE —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I did not understand the relevance of the minister's latter response to my question regarding the wish to have more children or fewer children. For example, how often do we hear young working women saying, `I cannot afford to have a baby'—their first baby—because when they have their first baby they lose not only their income but also the ability to accumulate superannuation for their retirement.

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I would just draw your attention to the last budget where some changes were made that facilitate families in that respect. If you look at family tax benefit part A and B, that is specifically there to acknowledge the individual single income families in that sense. You say, Senator, that people say to you they cannot afford to have children, and I hear some people say that too, but the plain facts are that materially we are much better off. We have a materially wealthy society compared with what we had before. Yet still people say that they do not feel better off, and that is because we have rising material aspirations. When I was at school, a Derwent set of pencils was everything; now it is a colour monitor, Nike shoes, the Nintendo game—the whole lot. Material aspirations have risen to the point that families, in order to cater for those material aspirations—this is a personal view—are choosing to have fewer children.