Fertility and family policy in Australia

Research Paper No. 41 – February 2008

1. Introduction

Since 1977, Australia, like almost all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, has witnessed its total fertility rate (TFR) fall below the level required for population replacement.1 Over the last 10 years, this evidence has resulted in an increasingly active debate surrounding possible reasons behind the fall, future likely trends and strategies to stem it. These discussions are vital in comprehending the potential implications of current and future trends for Australia's longer-term social and economic future.

There has been extensive discussion about the impact of ageing of the population, including potential decreases in the size of the labour force and the total population, the future of immigration, and environmental sustainability. Issues regarding work and family, women's participation in the paid workforce, child care, paid maternity leave and the structure of family payments have also come into question. Such debates, as cited by Stanton in 2002, have sparked eye-catching newspaper headlines, such as "Populate or stagnate", "Procreate or perish", "Marry and multiply" and "Adapt or depopulate".

Australia's recent fertility rates may have been the lowest on record, however, unease about flagging fertility rates is by no means a modern concern. In 1904, a Royal Commission in the Australian state of New South Wales was established to seek reasons for the dramatic fall in fertility rate (the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales). Then, in 1942, an official inquiry began into the low birth rate - this time by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, which considered the rate to be a problem, "such as to cause, even now, the gravest anxiety about the future of the Australian people" (cited in Stanton, 2002, p. 3).

A number of explanations for the contemporary decline in fertility in developed countries have been proposed. There is growing evidence that a range of factors are related to fertility rates, although there does remain uncertainty as to which factors are most important in explaining the falls. While studies have produced differing results, there does seem to be growing evidence that social and economic policies do have an important role in stemming the declines in fertility rate (e.g., McDonald, 2006b; Sleebos, 2003).

This paper first outlines trends in fertility, their implications for Australia and the various explanations that have been provided for fertility trends. The potential explanations emphasise the importance of macro-level forces in affecting childbearing decisions, although the precise impact of the different forces is difficult to identify. Second, key government policies directed towards supporting Australian families are outlined. Third, the results of a major national survey undertaken in Australia that explored factors that impact upon decisions about fertility are discussed. Finally, the policies that appear to be likely to influence fertility decision-making are discussed.

1 In Australia, the replacement fertility rate is about 2.1.