For a field that relies so heavily on dry-as-dust statistics, demography has a lot of media sex appeal. This month’s report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics about the decline in Australia’s birth rate generated a wave of headlines about the national “baby drought” and the likely impact of a rapidly ageing population. Get thee to the bedroom, men and women of Australia.

But conversations about birthrates are never just about the numbers of babies. They’re about the bodies from which of those babies emerge. The Sydney Morning Herald illustrated the ABS finding about birth rates in the inner city (the most baby-parched zone of the drought-stricken nation) with the story of artist Piers, his wife, Bridget, and their only child, Lucien — not Abdullah and Fatima and their little baby Osama, or even Darren and Brittney and their adorable baby Maverick. Our narratives about demography illustrate our racial and class anxieties, as “undesirable” (black, brown, low-income) women are disciplined for having too many babies while “desirable” (white, middle-class) women are scolded for not having enough of them.

Take up the White Woman’s Burden, Bridget.

Politicians in a range of locations have extolled childbirth as a national duty. Peter Costello urged Australians to get down and dirty with his line about having “one for the mother, one for the father and one for the country”. Yasser Arafat was even more enthusiastic, urging Palestinians to have one for each of the parents and “10 for the struggle”.

It’s interesting to juxtapose the stories about the “baby drought” with those about the global refugee crisis, given Australia’s twin obsessions with fending off invaders from Asia and with building and maintaining a strong population base. As academic Erica Miller notes: “When people or practices are likened to floods threatening Australia’s security, asylum seekers, for example, present an external threat. Conversely, abortion threatens to erode the white nation from within.”

The subtext to the baby-drought stories is fear that falling birth rates in Australia and Western Europe may force future generations of Australians to welcome the Yellow Peril with open arms.

Except these days, the Yellow Peril has been replaced by the Muslim Peril. The viral YouTube video “Muslim Demographics” (15,625, 315 views as of this morning) warns the world to “wake up” as Muslims threaten to conquer the globe not through force of arms, but through demographic conquest. Europe (or “Eurabia”, as the demographic panic-mongers refer to it) is already past the tipping point. Can Australia be far behind?

Former Liberal Party MP Danna Vale expressed this fear during the 2006 debate about providing access to RU486:

“I have read … comments by a certain imam from the Lakemba Mosque [who] actually said that Australia is going to be a Muslim nation in 50 years’ time. I didn’t believe him at the time. But … look at the birthrates and you look at the fact that we are aborting ourselves almost out of existence by 100,000 abortions every year … You multiply that by 50 years. That’s 5 million potential Australians we won’t have here.”

Last month, former Hawke/Keating minister Peter Baldwin joined the demographic fear-mongers in an op-ed for The Australian:

 “High Muslim birthrates combined with a stagnant or declining population ensure a Muslim majority in Europe is only a matter of time.”

Fortunately, he concludes, Tony Abbott has saved Australia from a similar fate.

And his former colleague Gary Johns has just published a book with the title No Contraception, No Dole, in which he states that access to welfare benefits ought to be conditional on women’s willingness to subject themselves to the use of long-term contraceptives. This, he concedes, “undoubtedly will affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people in great proportions”, but that is no justification for tax-payer funded breeding. “Some families, some communities, some cultures breed strife.”

Black babies are apparently not going to be up to the task of supporting an ageing white population, then.

As Aboriginal writer and activist Celeste Liddle said in response to the baby-drought stories: “I’d breed, but I’m reasonably clear that they’re not after the kind of babies I’d produce. They’re always trying to take them away!”

If some women are being urged to open their legs and think of Australia, others are being told to keep them firmly crossed. And the children languishing in detention on Nauru and in refugee camps around the world — well, they’re not fit for purpose.

Peter Fray

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