Government policy to subsidise childbearing is nothing new, but the idea that Australia really needs more babies had up until now been seen as an obsession of a few individual MPs – among them Danna Vale, Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello – rather than official government policy.

That now seems to have changed: yesterday afternoon the “Current Political Note” from Liberal Party head office directed the reader to a Costello press release, announcing ABS figures showing that more babies were born last year than at any time since 1971. The treasurer says he hopes “the trend of increased births will continue.”

Obviously – although you won’t learn this from the press release – an increase in the number of births isn’t significant in itself; our population has increased since 1971, so there are more women to have children. The birthrate could still be declining. But that’s apparently not happening; according to The Australian it has risen to 1.79 from 1.72 in 2003, and demographer Peter McDonald says it is likely to remain steady and could rise further.

But the idea that we need more children is deeply problematic at best.

Despite an upcoming film based on an underpopulation scare, it’s more plausible to think that the world would benefit from an easing of population pressure – plus, of course, a more balanced distribution of the population that we already have.

Let’s be blunt about this: every additional baby born in Australia will be used as an excuse by the nativists to keep out another one of the millions from other countries who would like to come and live here, condemning many of them to poverty and starvation in their overpopulated homelands.

The other side of that coin is that immigration means increased living standards for the people who come here, plus higher status of women than they are likely to have enjoyed in their countries of origin. Those two things in turn drive falling birthrates. Pushing for increased (white) fertility instead means turning the clock back.

Peter Fray

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