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HECS and the Single Girl

If you’re ever really bored and you’ve exhausted yourself watching pots or staring at a barely moving minute hand, I can heartily recommend a trip to the Bureau of Statistics website to watch the population clock. When I visited at 13:11:07 on December 29, Australia’s population was.19,802,964. Two minutes and 44 seconds later, it had clicked over by one to 19,802,965.

Population clock, a few years on

Clock watching traditionalists might scoff at my suggestion, pointing out that with time clocks, there’s a flurry of action every 60 seconds, rather than sitting things out for 164. But the advantage of the population clock is the story there in the notes underneath. Apparently, there’s a birth every 2 minutes and 11 seconds, and if you can’t get to one live, why not sit at home and watch the population clock? If you can’t make it to Tullamarine or to the UN processing station of your nearest small Pacific nation to welcome the migrant we gain every 5 minutes and 50 seconds, well catch it as good as live on the population clock. And if you’re feeling contemplative and wondering what it’s all about, the deaths are there too, racking up at one every 3 minutes and 47 seconds. Births, deaths, immigration. Make the switch traditional clock watchers. Don’t be so set in your ways.

Also, like a bushfire or a tsunami you’re watching a crisis unfold (wait for the A Current Affair one hour special in front of the population clock). According to the World Fact Book 2001, Australia’s fertility rate is at a record low of 1.77 babies per woman. For equilibrium, we need it to be 2.2, which means for an aging population, there’s going to be nobody around to spit on a tissue and wipe the stewed apple away from the corner of our mouths.

Because increasing the death rate is such an election loser, most public policy ideas have concentrated on policies that might increase the birthrate. There’s the government’s sliding scale baby bonus, the scale providing a maximum $2,500 to full time carers coming off salaries over $52,000, down to $500 for people earning less than $25,000. It might not be fair to the working poor, but on the plus side, we no longer have tuberculosis.

Parliamentary Secretary Ross Cameron proposed ‘indissoluble’ marriage contracts with tax incentives, a divorce tax, to encourage spouses who hate each other to soldier on and get on with the business of reproducing. ‘Yes, Davo hits me, but I’ve discussed it with my accountant and from a tax point of view it really makes sense to stay together right now.’ Naturally, Tony Abbott is on board, but then he’s already married, so doesn’t face the daunting prospect of asking the question, ‘so what do you reckon, indissoluble or soluble?’

Then there’s paid maternity leave, supported by Labor and championed by Pru Goward. Ms Goward’s proposal is that women be paid the minimum wage ($431 per week) for 14 weeks after giving birth. Mr Howard has said that it will be considered in a review of work and family early this year.

From a social benefit perspective, the Goward plan should be adopted, for Australia has is lagging behind the rest of the Western world in the way it cares for new mothers. But a few thousand dollars isn’t going to solve the fertility crisis. Increasingly, couples are (rightly or wrongly) waiting until they reach a stage of life when they believe they can care effectively for the massive commitment that is that next click on the population clock. People want to feel secure if they’re to make a shift from full time to part time work, or full time caring. Which is why Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson should think of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) as a giant, Australia-sized, fiscal prophylactic.

In 2003, HECS looks set to increase. It is widely tipped that in response to the Crossroads review of 2002, the higher education market will be deregulated, allowing cash strapped universities to charge market rates for courses. For the most popular degrees, this could mean huge fee hikes (maybe four or five times current rates) and given the demand for tertiary qualification in the employment market (17,450 people missed out on courses last year), even less popular degrees and diplomas will still be more expensive than they are now.

American sized university debts will not help our falling birth rate. Few women are going to feel they have their careers under control, if at 30 years of age, they still owe tens of thousands of dollars, repayable at 5% of total salary if their wage creeps above $23,000. Instead, they’ll work harder for longer to chase security. For population clock watchers, it’s going to be slow, tedious viewing.

As for who should pay for education if not the students, the answer is of course – the government. The best funded OECD countries invest 2% of GDP in education, whereas in Australia it is down to 1.4%. The government might legitimately ask how it can afford to bolster education spending, introduce paid maternity leave, increase the HECS repayment threshold? Well … I’m just a writer. Don’t ask me. Maybe it’s like juggling bills for child-care, nappies and those ‘live’ baby dolls that crap with the aid of C-sized batteries. If you think it’s important, you’ll make it work.