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"It's the birthrate, stupid!": Turnbull's SA pitch to working mums

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With fledgling Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull under pressure to ditch contentious cuts to paid parental leave, a little-known speech he gave in Adelaide more than a decade ago provides a stark insight into his personal passion for encouraging mothers to remain in the workplace.

At the time, he was convinced that a flat-rate payment per child was preferable to the existing “complex” child support payment system, insisting that women must be given the opportunity to choose both a family and a career.

“It is desirable for women to be able, if they wish, to fulfil two goals: childbearing and a career,” he said at a forum in the South Australian parliament in 2004.

“Our society’s survival depends on making it possible for them to do both.”

Turnbull, yet to enter federal parliament, was then chairman of the Menzies Research Centre and managing director of Turnbull and Partners. He joined a high-powered group of speakers, including former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, analyst Bernard Salt and the late demographer Professor Graeme Hugo, to address the National Population Summit, hosted by then-Premier Mike Rann.

Turnbull argued that “the West is dying out” at a scale “matched only by the Black Death” without a public policy solution to the declining birth rate, arguing fertility rather than immigration was at the heart of Australia’s population challenge.

“It’s the birth rate, stupid!” he insisted.

“And if we keep ignoring it, we will be stupid indeed.”

He said work/family balance was at the heart of the debate, arguing it is “clearer and clearer that more attention must be given to workplace flexibility”.

“I remain convinced that we should seriously consider replacing what is a fairly complex system of child and child care support with a single payment to each mother per child,” he said.

“In principle, is there any reason why the state should spend differential amounts in respect of a child based on whether the mother of that child works full-time, part-time or cares for the child at home?”

He said there should be a general “promotion of pro-natalist policies designed to ensure that our birth rate increases … or at least does not decline any further”.

Governments, he urged, should recognise “that women and their families’ desire to exercise their human right to have children is being restricted, and in many cases denied, by the failure of the world of work (mostly ruled by men) to recognise that women are not identical to men.

Rather, they are “uniquely able to bear children, and should be given every opportunity to do so”.

“There is nothing any of us are likely to do which is more important for the future of this nation than to bear and raise children,” said Turnbull, flagging the need to promote permanent part-time working arrangements.

“We must change our work culture to make it genuinely supportive of parents with responsibilities for children,” he said.

“You do not have to be a social scientist to recognise that while women may have broken through the glass ceiling, it is all too often with the tacit proviso that they leave their children behind.”

He said a “dramatic decline in marriage and increase in divorce” had had “profoundly damaging effects on our society”.

“We should take steps to promote the traditional married family with a view to increasing the number of marriages and decreasing the number of divorces,” he said, arguing that the nation’s future would be more secure if “more children grew up with both their biological parents”.

Eleven years on, interest groups including the powerful Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry are today calling for the newly-sworn-in Prime Minister to abandon plans to close a so-called “double dipping loophole” in the existing maternity leave payment regime, which allows women to receive payments from both the Government and their employer.

The Abbott regime was strongly criticised for its strident rhetoric in announcing the changes, with frontbencher Scott Morrison arguing it was “in many cases… a rort”.

abbottbaby

Former PM Tony Abbott fails to win over 15-month-old Tully Hubbard on a trip to Tasmania in May. Photo: AAP.

Turnbull said in May that while he backed the policy change, “I’m not using that language and I don’t agree (with it)”.

“I think it’s very important that we always respect and show due empathy and concern and consideration for families and particularly mothers,” he said.

Ironically though, ousted PM Tony Abbott’s dogged adherence to his so-called “gold-plated” paid parental leave scheme -which would have offered women six months’ leave at their replacement wage, up to $150,000 a year plus superannuation – put him under significant pressure in his partyroom before he finally renounced the policy.

Turnbull today flagged an influx of women in his new cabinet, saying: “There is no greater enthusiast than me for seeing more women in positions of power and influence in parliament.”

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