Home care, not day care. A “French” model for pre-schooling. Helping “supermums” do it all. Investigate editor JAMES MORROW recently caught up with controversial federal MP Bronwyn Bishop, who’s just launched a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s flagging birth rate and the work-life balance, to discuss what Canberra can do to persuade more people to have kids, and help those who’ve already taken the parenthood plunge
INVESTIGATE: You’ve just announced that your Standing Committee on Family & Human Services is launching an inquiry into Australia’s birthrate and work-life balance, and perhaps the best way to
begin is to ask, what ways do you see government being able to effect change in this sort of area of Australians’ lives?
BRONWYN BISHOP, MP: Well the first thing is, it’s not peculiar to us, it is a problem affecting the whole of the Western civilized world, that countries are losing population. So there’s already been a lot of discussion about it, and I think that it is timely that we start to bring it together.
My interest grew in this initially from 1999, when I was Minister for Aged Care, and when I had responsibility for the Year of the Older Person, and of course I really wanted to understand and document the impact of an aging population on Australia’s population. So I commissioned Access Economics to do the research, and that
was the first research that was done – from which we subsequently got the Inter-generational Report.
But the problems that we identified – how do you keep mature-age workers in the work force, issues of productivity, all that – we’ve passed that period, and we know where to go. The corollary is: what do we do about people in their twenties and thirties? We know that people stay in education longer, people have children later, we know that one quarter of women will never have any children, and we want to look at the reasons why people are doing that.
INVESTIGATE: Sure, and the reasons a lot of people have cited are that people want to have a career, get themselves situated, have various life experiences, travel, and all that – how can you effect a cultural shift and have people go back to where they want to start a family earlier?
BISHOP: It’s not a question of going back to where we were; it’s a question of what pressures can be relieved through the use of public policy. What can we do to make people feel that they can in fact create an environment and a home where they can feel comfortable keeping a relationship and a family intact, and what are the policies that can help bring that about?
Now under the terms of reference we’re looking at taxation, because taxation is the driver of so many things and so many behaviours. Obviously the question of childcare will arise, and we will be certainly looking at other countries’ models, and we will be looking at countries like France. In terms of childcare they seem to have a system which gives more children care, and their birthrate is now above ours – they’ve pushed it up again.

INVESTIGATE: Of course if you look at a place like France, you’re also talking about a place where you have large groups of immigrant families who are having many more children than the native-born population, to say nothing of all the economic problems they’ve had from the social benefits that make it more expensive to
hire someone…
BISHOP: Well, France has a problem with a lot of the way it organizes itself, such as the fact that they introduced a 35-hour work week. We’re not the slightest bit interested in that, and I think it has been pejorative for the French nation. And from a family point of view, there is a lot of evidence around that it actually makes it harder for women to work and raise a family because it is a lot tougher to have certainty of hours.
But in other policies, such as where they have an effective pre-school system for children three to six, which covers 99% of French children, certainly immigration is part of the question – we have immigration here too and we would cease to grow if were not
for immigration.
INVESTIGATE: On the question of childcare here, there’s a huge problem with the actual number of childcare places. Parents get a benefit for the money they pay, and get some of that back, and that goes with the whole question of tax policy – but an awful lot of parents can’t get their kids into a place. What can be done about this?
BISHOP: Look, why do we put all our resources into childcare places, which at the end of the day is an institution? Why aren’t we looking, as we have with other service deliveries, why aren’t we looking at the home? We made a good start with the 30% rebate which will come in from 2006 for childcare expenses, but again that’s through childcare places. We’ll certainly be looking at options and alternatives.
Going back to my aged care analogy, people don’t really want to be in institutions, they want to be at home. And asMinister I introduced thousands of [funded] places for people to remain in their own homes. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t look at service delivery in other ways.
INVESTIGATE: When you say “in the home”, you mean making it easier for parents to stay at home with their children, or to have people come in and look after kids, or what?
BISHOP: Well, we actually need young women to return to the workforce. We made a big investment in their education, the country needs a return on that, and they know they’ve got a one-in-two chance of being divorced. They need to get their skills up because they might be heading up their own families. So all these things are all very real issues.
But looking at help in the home – instead of having to go into an institution to do that – there is some evidence of that happening in France. So we’ll be looking at those things as well.
INVESTIGATE: What about leave policies? I know that’s something that Pru Goward has been talking a lot about – questions of how you get people to take advantage of benefits fully. For men, for example, they may not want to take advantage of parental leave in their office if it leaves them vulnerable to getting overtaken by someone else in their office who doesn’t.
BISHOP: To me, maternity leave is no doubt to be discussed. My personal view is that when you’re looking at issues of decisions to have a child and to be in the workforce, it’s not a thirteen week problem, it’s a thirteen year problem. And it could be a thirty year problem! But in reality, we have to look outside the square and look beyond our regular way of doing things.
INVESTIGATE: Speaking of outside the square, you’ve brought up France a couple of times, and you’ve mentioned their polices of services in the home. Help us get our heads across some of these ideas, how this would work.
BISHOP: One of the ideas would be to have a tax deduction for paying people who come and work in your home to come and care for not only children but also do aged care, look after grown parents, and so on, in people’s homes. I took a look at the ABS figures and found that for those sorts of jobs that are in the black economy, they’re worth about six billion dollars in foregone tax. So it’s not all an expenditure question, it’s also one of creating proper jobs – all those things need to be looked at.
INVESTIGATE: I’m sure you saw the Australian this morning, which reported the latest numbers from the OECD on taxation and marginal tax rates and how much money the government takes. There seems to be a lot of talking about giving people benefits for this and that rather than just cutting people’s tax, letting them keep more on the front end, and making up their own minds what to do with it.
BISHOP: Look, my personal views on this are well known. I’m a strong believer in the philosophy of free enterprise and individualism. Individuals will always spend their money more wisely than governments who take it and say we’re going to spend it on your behalf. That is the basic position I come from philosophically, and the principles of free enterprise are really as immutable as the laws of gravity.
INVESTIGATE: So then just as part of thinking outside the square, your inquiry might wind up recommending a real overhaul in the way we do things in this country, and get to keep more money in the first place?
BISHOP: Well I’m certainly not going to predict what the outcomes will be. But there is more than one way to give money back to people. One way is to collect less money in the first place, through tax cuts, another way is through tax deductions, another is through rebates. And we’re going to have a 30% rebate on child care expenses in approved places. We have given the birth of a new child $3,000 – which is giving people more of their own money back.
INVESTIGATE: Well of course the $3,000 is great for new parents, but it’s a one-off, and they’re not getting that money back every year.
BISHOP: There is also the $600 per child, which is better than nothing…
INVESTIGATE: So with the idea of bringing people into the home, you’d have to obviously develop some sort of new accreditation system I presume? How would that work? I could imagine there would be a real danger of creating a whole new bureaucracy around this.
BISHOP: One thing – and these are all things we have to explore – we have to explore withholding tax, and getting these carers a tax file number, and getting them into the system. You know, when I speak to large groups of people and say hands up anyone who knows someone who pays for these sorts of tax in cash, well, forests of hands go up. It’s in the black economy, and it’s money that could be captured. But it’s just one of the things we’re thinking about.
INVESTIGATE: What are some of these other ideas that we might be seeing down the track out of this inquiry? This is, after all, the number one issue these days it seems.
BISHOP: Absolutely, there are some firms that have crèches, and there’s Family Tax Benefit, and we’ll talk about that. So there are just a lot of things to be discussed. And I think the inquiry gives us the opportunity – because so many areas have been discussed in so many unconnected ways – to bring it all together and connect up the dots.
INVESTIGATE: The thing with all these inquiries is getting from connecting all the dots to getting the government to change the way people do things – and as you say there are ways to change opportunities, to change the economic incentive, but how do you change the social attitudes around things such as having children in your twenties, when it’s safer and easier to do so?
BISHOP: Well of course, everything’s moved up, hasn’t it? I mean, forty is the new thirty; thirty is the new twenty. We’re living longer. We’ve got more time. But the biological clock hasn’t moved, of course…
INVESTIGATE: The whole problem of women who say, “oops, I forgot to have a baby” – is your inquiry going to look at ways to change attitudes and remind people that no matter what life expectancies are at 35 your fertility is declining and you need to be seriously thinking about the order in which you do things?
BISHOP: Really our concern is, what are the barriers that make people think “it’s not for me”, or “maybe I would like to but I’ll only have one”? What are the barriers? We want to hear from women. We want to hear from employers, we want to hear about the impact of the return of women to the workforce and of women with tremendous skills being able to be mothers and wives without being a supermum. Some people talk about the myth of the supermum: it’s reality. So that’s what we’re starting out looking at. Then we will look at recommendations from that for public policy.
We’ve seen tremendous changes in the culture in the last thirty years. In the ‘80s we had a government that was encouraging people to leave the workforce at 55 – they simply had not done the forward projections. Anybody who had done the forward work would’ve known that was nuts: that they couldn’t afford to live the good life when they were only halfway through it. We had the situation where legislation was brought in changing the divorce laws in the ‘70s; that was a tremendous change in the culture. So cultural change has been fermenting for the last thirty years. And in the last twenty years there has been quite a tremendous shift. What we’re looking at is, how can we have good public policy?
That means people can have good fulfilling lives, and that involves having a family and having children. What are the impediments that people feel? What are the constraints? What are the things that make people think, “no, it’s not for me”?
What are those things, and what do we need to do in terms of good public policy – tax, providing services people. That is the question.