Saturday, November 27, 2004

Spot the difference

In yesterday's Age there was an article on Australia's fertility rate. The good news is that the fertility rate has stopped falling, and has beeen stable at 1.75 children per woman for six years now.

But what really caught my attention were the comments of a demographer from the Australian National University, Rebecca Kippen. She said that,

Countries like France and Norway that have high fertility are also the ones with very good maternity leave provisions...

Now, on the one hand, this sounds like the usual left-liberal call for women to be supported by the state or their employers, rather than their husbands. But can you spot the important difference?

Rebecca Kippen is identifying France & Norway as the model social-democratic, feminist countries. What's happened to Sweden?

For the last thirty years Australian feminists have been in love with Sweden. Sweden was always held up as the great example of a successful, progressive country for Australia to follow. It was Sweden which had pushed furthest the ideas of subsidised child-care and paid maternity leave, so that mothers were no longer supported within a family but remained independent members of the workforce.

So why has Rebecca Kippen, to use a term appropriate to the home of IKEA, shelved Sweden? The problem for feminists in keeping Sweden on the front bench (sorry, another IKEA term), is that the figures for Sweden have gone the wrong way. Sweden has done more in terms of paid maternity leave for a longer period of time than any other country in the world, yet its fertility rate in 2003 was a middling 1.54, well below Australia's rate.

In fact if we line up the four European countries which have pushed hard on paid maternity leave and compare their fertility rates to Australia we get this:

France 1.85 Norway 1.80 Australia 1.75 Denmark 1.73 Sweden 1.54

You can see why Rebecca Kippen chooses the examples of France and Norway and prefers to ignore Denmark and Sweden. The examples of Denmark and Sweden ruin her case. In Denmark and Sweden a great deal of money has been spent on paid maternity leave, leading to much higher rates of taxation, and yet their fertility rates are still lower than Australia's.

The chances are that a similar effect will occur also in France and Norway in a few years time and that their fertility rates will fall to a Swedish level. For the moment, though, they get to be the new Swedens in the feminist press.

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