Tony Abbott’s recent comments caused controversy. Picture: Britta Campion / The Australian
Tony Abbott’s recent comments caused controversy. Picture: Britta Campion / The Australian

Tony Abbott is right: It needs to be easier to have babies

WAVING my first born off on her first day of school last week, I was hit with an unexpected sadness.

My daughter couldn't have cared less. She busily swatted her hovering mother out of the classroom so she could get on with being an independent and confident five year old.

But that excited kid in her oversized uniform, with her skinny legs (and baby dimples still on her hands) symbolised the end of an era of small childhood - a period of time I would never get to do over. Time that was gone forever. Time that had passed too fast.

It seemed like only a month ago I was mooing with back-to-back contractions as my husband sped through empty midnight streets to hospital.

But suddenly that baby was starting school and I was hit with a new wave of crippling pain: working parent guilt.

Had I worked too much? Did I value our time when I wasn't working? Had I missed her enough when I was at work? Would she remember our adventures or just the cranky mornings where I yell at her to put the bloody guinea pigs away and get dressed?

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said the government needs to make it easier for working women to have babies. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said the government needs to make it easier for working women to have babies. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett

So when I heard Tony Abbott's comments about how we need to make it easier for working women to have children, I surprisingly couldn't have agreed more.

"While I'm all in favour of stay-at-home-mums if that's their choice, I do think that a properly conservative government, acknowledging that having a family is one of the most wonderful things that anyone can do, would make it easier for women in the workforce to have more kids. And that's a real problem in every western country: middle class women do not have enough kids," the former prime minister said at a Centre for Independent Studies event last week.

"Women in the welfare system have lots of kids," he added. "If you're very wealthy you can afford to have as many kids as you want.

"But if you are earning somewhere between $80,000 and $200,000 a year and you've got to take a long period of time out of the workforce, all too often the choice is not to do it. And I think that's a real problem for the long term future of our country."

To nobody's surprise, outrage ensued, including allegations he was encouraging eugenics.

Female MPs like Kelly O'Dwyer, who retired at the last election to spend more time with her family, know the struggles of being a working mum all too well. Picture: Kym Smith
Female MPs like Kelly O'Dwyer, who retired at the last election to spend more time with her family, know the struggles of being a working mum all too well. Picture: Kym Smith

And while I believe that what a woman does with her womb is her business, there is a significant issue raised by Abbott that has been lost in the feminist fury.

It is hard to have a young family in Australia.

At just over $100 average a day before subsidies, Australia is among the most expensive countries in the world for childcare.

Add to that flat wages, an increasing cost of living and poor long term job prospects, and it's no wonder the low occupancy rate of Australia's uteri is a concern.

I have friends with one child who must decide between paying their mortgage or having another baby. I know a single mum of three, who loved her career, but cannot cover childcare costs if she returns to the workforce.

With three small children and a full-time job, I'm held together by a logistical juggle of nannies and help from my parents, neighbours and family friends.

And before you moan that you shouldn't have kids if you can't afford to raise them yourself, without more babies, without more working mums adding to their families, there will be a seriously deficient future workforce that will struggle to adequately care for our rapidly ageing population.

Without more babies, without more working mums adding to their families, there will be a seriously deficient future workforce. Picture: AAP/James Gourley
Without more babies, without more working mums adding to their families, there will be a seriously deficient future workforce. Picture: AAP/James Gourley

Who then is going to empty your bed pan, prescribe your medications or bring you a cuppa and the crossword?

Our 2020 fertility rate will be 1.813 births per woman, according to the United Nations' World Population Prospects (it was 2.86 in 1970) and well below the replacement rate of 2.1 that ensures we maintain our population.

Boosting Australia's birthrate can only be achieved by providing women and men sensible incentives to have more children.

I'm not suggesting a baby bonus that triggers a spike in flat screen TV sales.

Many European nations have addressed their plummeting birthrates by increasing paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, giving men more access to shared parental leave and offering free childcare and a guaranteed pre school place for every baby born. The Ukraine is even handing out free IVF.

Something has to change so that Australian parents can comfortably make decisions that balance their need for money and family.

It might not ease working parent guilt, but it needs to be easier to have another baby.

Just don't expect any more from me. That ship has well and truly sailed.

Lucy Carne is editor of Rendezview.com.au