Pronatalism under Howard.

Author:Heard, Genevieve
Position:John Howard

This article documents the re-emergence of pronatalism in rhetoric and policy under the Howard Government. The author argues that the language of gender equity theory has facilitated this development. However, the Government has not followed through on the policy implications of this perspective.


In 2006, the Howard Government celebrated a decade in power. The news media marked the anniversary with reviews of Howard's achievements and failures, noting major changes in economic and social (including family) policy. Another aspect of change under this Government, largely absent from these reviews, is worthy of comment. This is the way in which the issue of low fertility has been returned to the political agenda in a manner not seen since the advent of feminism and individualism, which saw childbearing decisions placed firmly in the hands of individual women.

The extent of this shift is easily illustrated. In 1994, Australia's most recent population inquiry (1) declared fertility to be beyond the scope of legitimate government intervention. Yet only one decade later, in the lead-up to the 2004 election, the two major parties were engaged in a bidding war over cash payments to be paid at the birth of a baby. Under an ostensibly noninterventionist government, fertility shifted from being 'a personal matter not to be directly and deliberately manipulated by government action' (2) to the subject of public debate and legitimate political concern. It is worth documenting when and by what means this shift in attitudes and policy occurred. This article tracks the (re)emergence of pronatalism in rhetoric and policy across four terms of Howard Government, and the role of various stakeholders in the fertility debate.

The analysis also considers the way in which the issue of low fertility has been framed. The take-up of the issue has been greatly facilitated by the language of gender equity theory (frequently elaborated in this journal by Peter McDonald). In particular, the framing of the matter in terms of 'work and family balance' has proved broadly acceptable to media and public. The Government has embraced this language, but has failed to implement the policies implied by the gender equity perspective. Instead, policies more palatable to its conservative constituents have been pursued.


The problem of population ageing was just starting to generate serious concern among political elites when the Howard Government came to power. Reporting in June 1996, only a few months after the election, the National Commission of Audit drew attention to the likely impact of demographic change on Commonwealth finances. (3) Initially, indeed, discussion of population ageing focussed almost exclusively on its economic implications, with little attention to its causes. (4)

When the possibility of using policy to influence demographic outcomes was raised during the Government's first term, it was solely in terms of immigration. Soon after the Coalition Government gained power, Philip Ruddock (then Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) stated his party's position that 'immigration policy is generally accepted as the only practical tool for influencing the directions of Australia's population'. (5) On the subject of fertility, Ruddock was adamant that the issue was beyond the scope of government concern. Here the Minister took his lead from the 1991 National Population Council (NPC) Report (6) that had 'clearly rejected the idea that governments should seek to influence such things as fertility levels', (7) and went on to state that:

I agree with the NPC's view that 'the role of government in the area of fertility is only that of ensuring that couples are provided with the maximum extent of informed choice in deciding whether or not they have children'. Certainly the Coalition has no intention of trying to influence fertility levels. (8) TERM 2: FEMINISM, PRONATALISM AND GENDER EQUITY THEORY 1998-2001

An incident early in the Government's second term suggests that politicians were wise to be wary of the fertility issue. In April 1999, Jeff Kennett, then Victorian Premier, caused a furore when he broached the issue in a speech to students at Mac.Robertson Girls' High. Echoing the business lobby's argument that Australia's prosperity depends on population growth, (9) Kennett was quoted as stating that:

'our women are not producing enough offspring to simply maintain our population levels ... It is important that we keep our population increasing so that there are enough young people meeting the demands of society'. (10) Leaving aside the unrealistic demographic target he espoused (increasing Australia's population by 50 per cent by 2060), reactions to Kennett's statement reveal the sensitivity of the fertility issue at this point. The responses from feminist groups which appeared in the newspapers the following day were immediate and damning. A Women's Electoral Lobby spokeswoman labelled Kennett's comments 'incredibly sexist'. They would not have been made at a boys' school, added a National Union of Students spokeswoman, (11) and were 'completely out of step with changing gender relations in today's society, particularly the acknowledgement that it is a woman's right to choose whether or not she will have a baby'. (12)

Unsurprisingly, politicians from opposing parties also seized the opportunity provided by the media beat-up to pour scorn on Kennett's comments. Democrats senator Lyn Allison reportedly said that Kennett 'was stuck in the 1950s. "It's a pretty sad day when you have a State leader telling girls that their duty to their country is to breed"', while NSW Premier Bob Carr claimed the comments were reminiscent of Nazi Germany breeding camps. (13)

Feminism and pronatalism--an uneasy relationship

The reaction to Kennett's comments reflected a deep societal mistrust of pronatalism, on which his political opponents were able to capitalise. Pronatalism is antithetical to the feminist ideal of self-determination for women, with which the very notion of (mostly male) politicians intervening in matters relating to female reproductive freedoms sits most uncomfortably.

Arguably, however, it is not pronatalism per se that offends feminist sensibilities, but the manner in which pronatalism is put, reflecting the way in which the problem of low fertility is conceptualised. Feminists have been understandably wary of pronatalism, not because they object to childbearing (although some may), but because, in most forms, pronatalism has sought to restore a gendered division of labour which would restrict women's opportunities outside the home. As McDonald explains:

To the extent that pronatalism is presented as the need for women to do their duty for the nation, pronatalism is anti-feminist. Pronatalism in this context is portrayed both by proponents and opponents as the bulwark of 'traditional family values' by which women will return to the role preordained for them by nature and by god. (14) The reaction to Kennett's comments may be understood in similar terms. Kennett's mistake was not that he raised the issue of low fertility but the manner in which he raised it. The scandal was that Kennett made his comments at a girls' school and was therefore seen to be exhorting young women to choose motherhood over career. (The vilification of journalist Virginia Hausseger in 2002, after she publicly declared that choosing career over motherhood had ultimately left her unfulfilled, further served to illustrate the sensitivity of the feminist lobby on this point.) (15)

On both sides of politics, the response to Kennett's comments was interpreted as a warning that the fertility issue remained off-limits. Then Victorian Labor Opposition Leader, Steve Bracks, and Prime Minister John Howard moved to reassure voters that fertility was not considered a matter for political intervention. Bracks said: 'Victorians did not want the Premier to advise them on personal and family decisions--"When will the Premier get off telling individuals what to do?"' (16) At the same time, Howard declared that: 'The question of how many children men and women choose to have is a matter for them, I don't express a view either way'. (17) Kennett himself said that the fracas illustrated why politicians were 'fundamentally scared to talk about' population issues. (18)

Gender equity theory

It is in the context of this political sensitivity that the appeal of gender equity theory--which appeared by that name in a number of academic journals in 2000 (19)--must be understood. The achievement of McDonald and other proponents of this perspective has been to present a pronatalist argument which does not offend the feminist ideal of full participation for women in the public sphere.

Although gender equity theory attributes low fertility to the advances of women in education and work, it does not seek to reverse these trends. In fact, it argues that a policy approach based on traditional homemaker roles for women is 'likely to produce a negative reaction and a reduction of fertility'. (20) The most compelling evidence for gender equity theory is, in fact, that countries with the lowest-low fertility (Italy, Spain, Greece and Japan, for example) are precisely those which espouse socially conservative values and which support a male breadwinner/female homemaker model of the family. Under such systems, the opportunities gained by women in education and market employment are so severely compromised by having children that women are reducing their fertility to 'precariously low' levels. (21)

Rather, gender equity theory argues that fertility remains higher where women are supported in their desire to combine both work and family goals. It is therefore acceptable to feminists, not only because it promotes female workforce participation, including that of mothers, but because the 'blame' for low fertility lies...

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