Finance Minister Nick Minchin, though, has been solidly opposed to the idea of paid maternity leave. Back in 2002, he rejected introducing such a scheme because:
There is no evidence that paid maternity leave in particular increases the fertility rate. Twenty out of 24 developed countries with paid maternity leave have lower fertility rates than Australia.
My Department has now formally costed paid maternity leave at between $415m and $780m per annum depending on the rate of pay and eligibility. This would be a major new burden on taxpayers.
I cannot see the justification for taxpayers handing over an additional half a billion dollars to mothers in the paid workforce while ignoring all other mothers.
And he is right. Even if you pay women a full salary to stay home with their children, there is no overall benefit to the fertility rate. The country in the OECD with the highest fertility rate, the USA (2.09), has one of the least developed systems of paid leave.
Australia in 2006 had a fertility rate of 1.81, which is similar to that of countries with paid maternity schemes such as Denmark (1.76) and Sweden (1.86) - but without the very high taxes required to fund the Scandinavian systems.
Which raises an important question. Why doesn't offering such generous financial incentives to women increase their motivation to have children?
The socialised family
In 2003 Elizabeth Kath wrote a lengthy paper titled titled "The Mother of All Battles: Why Paid Maternity Leave is Overdue in Australia".
Her argument is that paid maternity leave is necessary to transform the role of women from the oppressive traditional one of mother to that of professional careerist. We are to abandon the idea that the maternal role is natural and transfer the responsibility for reproduction from individual women to society.
She states that the oppression of women:
derives from their traditional reproductive role and that the introduction of paid maternity leave should be introduced as a means to transform this traditional role.
... Feminists have long recognised that the traditional view of women's role in society is an oppressive one. Shulasmith Firestone's declaration that "the heart of women's oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles" expresses a commonly held view amongst women's liberationist advocates.
... From this theory of women's oppression it would seem that the solution would be to move reproductive labour into the public realm. However, the problem with unequal relations between men and women is that they are considered 'natural' and therefore inevitable ... Traditionally, the responsibilities of reproduction were seen to belong to women due to their 'distinct nature'. This nature, including such qualities as the 'maternal instinct' and the tendency to nurture, meant women were biologically suited for reproductive labour.
However, feminists have disputed the traditional view, arguing it is a cultural construct ... In The Second Sex, Beauvoir questions the notion that women have a 'maternal instinct'. In reality there is no such thing, she argues ... (pp.3-5)
Here then is one possible reason why societies which adopt paid maternity schemes don't have higher birth rates than other comparable countries like America or Australia. The philosophy behind these schemes is explicitly anti-maternal. If you believe that motherhood is oppressive to women, and that there is no natural maternal instinct or drive, and that the primary focus of women's lives should be their professional careers, then there is unlikely to be a high level commitment to reproduction by women.