The Treasurer’s plans for this desired population augmentation were less specific than a Marvin Gaye record and a bottle of Shiraz. « I think the best thing that we can do to encourage more children being born across the country is obviously to create a strong economy for them to be born into, » he said.
Peter Costello at least gave Australians a little more to work with when he asked us to get busy. He created the Baby Bonus – something Frydenberg has not offered. The Coalition government has also just ended the free childcare holiday they had instituted during the early stage of the pandemic.
I could write a long treatise here about the economic benefits of affordable childcare for women’s workforce participation, and how women in insecure or casual work need to lock in childcare before they can take on such work, and how women’s employment, and therefore poverty risk, is adversely affected if affordable childcare is unavailable. But I have to pick my kid up in a few hours so I don’t have the time.
Dr Liz Allen, demographer at the Australian National University, says it was unsurprising “given the Australian demographic profile in terms of an ageing population” that the Treasurer would spruik the need for birth rates to increase.
“In the Treasurer’s defence, I don’t think he was calling for a baby boom, but rather giving a call to arms to keep the birth rates steady and keep it from falling any further,” Dr Allen says. “It’s a little bit tone deaf,” she concedes. “Perhaps more than just a little bit tone deaf, given the current situation.”
We know that women and young people have borne the brunt of coronavirus job losses and we know they are more likely to be in insecure work to begin with. Young people also came into this crisis at a disadvantage. This week, Productivity Commission research reported by my colleague Shane Wright in the The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age showed that well before the pandemic, young people had suffered a decade of falling incomes.
This is due, in part, to increased labour market competition after the Global Financial Crisis, when older people who might have left the job market, did not. The income hit was so severe that a person aged between 15 and 24 has a similar disposable income to someone of the same age in 2001. Incomes for people aged between 25 and 34 also fell between 2008-2018. Compare this to retirees and those over 65 – their incomes rose by up to 3.2 per cent a year in the same decade, even though so many of them no longer work.
The existing tax system, with its generous superannuation tax breaks, negative gearing and franking credits perks, is also geared to benefit older Australians.
What is the government’s plan to help these two rather large populations – women and young people? At the Press Club, Frydenberg talked about the government’s promotion of skills and training, a Higher Education Relief package, the $1 billion JobTrainer fund to provide extra vocational training places for school leavers, and an extension of the 50 per cent wage subsidy for apprentices and trainees.
The government has not unveiled any policies targeted at women (apart, perhaps, from the childcare policy it swiftly revoked), nor has it acknowledged the greater burden of care the lockdown has placed predominantly on the shoulders of women.
For years the Coalition catastrophised about the “debt and deficit disaster” they said Labor had created. It had more than six years to deliver a surplus before the pandemic hit, but it didn’t. Now the government has accrued a large public debt (with very good reason and based on the sound advice of Treasury), the debt rhetoric has understandably disappeared.
But where is the care, and the reform response, to ameliorate the impact on the young people who will shoulder that debt? No one in Parliament now will bear the brunt of the higher taxes that will be necessary to pay it off. All of a sudden the debt hawks in the Coalition have turned into sweet little wrens who barely chirrup.
As for women, Dr Allen says it best. « Australia’s future is this idea of families and parents, yet it takes a crisis for any kind of overt recognition of the role of women,” she says.
“Rather than recognising the barriers they face, it’s just, ‘Do your duty’ and harking back to that idea of ‘Lie back and think of England’.” It’s little wonder few people are in the mood.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards