At Large

Out of the Death Spiral?

If Western Europe wants to save itself demographically, it might look to Australia.

By 11.19.06

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Many commentators, the great and good Mark Steyn pre-eminent among them, have been sounding the alarm over Europe's demographic "death-spiral."

I don't need to reproduce in any detail here the frightening figures which Mark Steyn has quoted in America Alone and elsewhere (a book I consider absolutely indispensable reading today). Suffice it to say that most of Western Europe's populations are now below replacement rate, with Italy at 1.2 births per marriage and Spain at 1.1 -- that's a population at least halving every generation. At that rate the Muslim re-re-conquest of Spain demanded by Osama bin Laden and others or a repetition of the Muslim sacking of Rome in 846 (the latter never mentioned by the Crusade-guilt industry) will soon be unnecessary: the land will be empty for anyone to walk in. The U.S. is at about replacement rate, with 2.07 births (its actual population growth due to immigration), and Canada is at 1.5.

The fact that countries whose religion and culture have been overwhelming Catholic are among those closest to or actually on the death-spiral suggests the crucial factors in this population collapse are not religious but economic, or rather that the Catholic church's disapproval of birth-control and support for large families is not enough of itself to prevail against secular economic pressures. Catholic or Protestant, it is much the same. It is easy to argue that in an affluent society with plenty of entertainment, pleasures and distractions available, if you've got the time and money, children are too costly.

There is, however, a bit of positive news from Australia, suggesting the disease may not be incurable. To give myself a pat on the back, it looks like the vindication of something which I have been arguing for some time, not that it should take an Einstein to figure it out: Western governments can encourage greater fertility in their populations by baby-friendly taxation policies, bonuses, and other incentives.

It has now been found that in Australia an A$4,000 (about U.S. $3,600) maternity payment introduced by the Government in 2004 has helped to accelerate the nation's birthrate with more than 10,000 extra babies born in the past year.

Australia is not unlike Western Europe in relevant ways: it is an affluent country, where it costs a great deal to educate a child. The great objective of most Australians is to own the family home freehold, and two-incomes are generally thought necessary to keep a mortgage under control. Most people consider at least one, and preferably two cars, a necessity of life. A boast on a trailer on the nature-strip is desirable too. Holidays are very generous and Australians love to travel and to spend when traveling. This all militates against child-bearing.

However, since the present "baby bonus" was introduced, government data on the number of parents claiming it strongly suggests that the birthrate is rising at a much faster rate than previously thought.

Claims were made by 268,667 parents for newborns in 2005-06, an increase of more than 10,000 births on the previous year and more than 16,000 on 2003-04.

The national daily the Australian, which uncovered the figures using Freedom of information legislation, reported:

Demographers suggest the maternity payment -- worth $3000 when it was introduced in July 2004 but increased to $4000 in July this year -- combined with low interest rates and low unemployment, may be driving the baby boom.

Australia's fertility rate, which reached 1.8 babies per woman last year, is up from 1.72 in 2003 and is well above rates of between 1.2 and 1.4 in many other developed nations ...

There were 235,299 claims for the bonus -- comprising 194,342 couples and 40,957 single parents -- in 2004-05.


The number of claims jumped again in 2005-06 to 268,667, perhaps because some parents failed to claim in the first year.

When the payments were first mooted it was suggested that they would encourage teenagers to become pregnant as the first step in settling down to a life of welfare dependency. However this prediction has not been born out: there were only 186 more claims by teenagers between 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Overall, 4,800 teenagers claimed the bonus in 2005-06, but older women were found to be increasingly giving birth. Claims by parents over the age of 40 increased from 9,906 to 15,873, and claims by parents aged 35-39 increased from 44,783 in 2004-05 to 55,350 in 2005-06.

Treasurer Peter Costello said when presenting the 2004 budget that families should have "one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country." A spokesman for Costello's office says:

The Government has offered a number of incentives, such as the baby bonus, substantial increases in the rates of family benefits and extra childcare places to help with the hurdles of raising a family.

Having a child can be costly and it is pleasing that this payment is helping thousands of families around Australia with these costs. If it brings about an increase in the fertility rate, that is a good thing.


The Australian baby bonus is not very large -- only a couple of months average income, and there may be other cultural factors at work. But in the light of Europe's present demographic crisis this result is highly significant. Demographic decline does not have to be irreversible. Will the countries of Western Europe take notice and act? One wonders if the British High Commission and the Canberra embassies of France, Germany, Italy and Spain have noticed and are sending home reports. Tax-cut incentives might be another was of getting the same result.

This is only a small step but it's a significant one. In one way, implementing a policy like this doesn't call for much political courage: electors in general like tax-cuts and government grants, and in comparison to the big-budget items the drain on the public purse is quite small.

In another way, however, it would call for a great deal of political courage in Western Europe if it were to be helpful and not harmful. The survival of national identity would be the major purpose of the exercise. To avoid being counter-productive, it would have to be given only to people who are an authentic part of the nation and its culture.

To give grants to unassailable and hostile immigrant communities as a reward for breeding more would produce the opposite result to that intended. There would have to be tests for people to qualify, emphatically not on the basis of race -- which would be both immoral as well as impracticable -- but on the basis of culture and values. This is of course desperately politically incorrect but it is practicable. Obviously a good deal of fine-tuning may be necessary.

At present I can't see any Western European government grasping that particular nettle (except possibly the French, who for all their fault have a streak of realism when the chips are down). But things could be changing quickly.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.