January 7, 2005


Pregnant with potential (Malcolm Turnbull, January 04, 2005, The Australian)

WE are all familiar with the consequences of an ageing society: the product of a declining birth rate and greater life expectancy. The general consensus is that unless existing policies change by mid century we would need to spend about 8 per cent more of gross domestic product on health, welfare and pensions, which would mean a smaller workforce would have to pay even higher taxes.

The policy responses are easy to identify but very hard to implement successfully. They include: a greater reliance on self-funded retirement income and health insurance; the encouragement of older people to work longer, which entails more flexible workplaces and work practices; and, most importantly, a very determined focus on improving productivity as, in the absence of a growing labour force, the only way in which economic growth can be driven is through productivity gains.

At the other end of the problem, so to speak, efforts are being made to promote families and fertility. Every study shows that most women want to have at least two children and too many, for one reason or another, are not able to do that.

Australia is better situated than almost any other developed country to meet these challenges. A strong and strengthening savings culture and a low level of government debt puts us in a far better position than most of our peers in the developed world. Our birth rate (1.75) while below replacement level (2.1) is nonetheless higher than that in most other developed countries.

By 2050, the populations of many of the world's most important countries are set to decline from their levels in 2000: Japan by 14 per cent; Germany by 4 per cent; Russia by 30 per cent; Italy by 22 per cent; Spain by 8 per cent and so on.

On the other hand, the population of the US will have increased by 43 per cent, Australia by 33 per cent.

The percentage of the population of working age (defined as 15-59) will have declined in all countries; in Australia for example from 63 per cent of the population to 54 per cent. But at least in Australia and the US the absolute numbers of the work force will have increased by 14 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.

It seems noteworthy that the two nations also just re-elected conservative governments with increasingly significant religious elements.

Christian Soldiers: Faith-driven activists and politicians find that values mean votes (ELIZABETH FEIZKHAH, Nov. 23, 2004, TIME Pacific)

Conservative politicians and Christians in Australia are learning to speak in tongues - each other's. Last July, Treasurer Peter Costello told an ecstatic congregation of pentecostalists that the country needed "a return to faith and the values on which our society was founded - the values of the Ten Commandments, respect for other people, respect for their property." The same month, Christian and family-values lobby groups, fearful that Labor would derail an amendment barring same-sex marriage, brought 1,100 polite protesters to Parliament House - and secured an instant pledge from the party to fast-track the change. Before the Oct. 9 federal election, Christian groups vigorously, and with some success, promoted "Christian values" candidates in marginal seats. Last week, as Parliament reopened, one of the hottest talking points in Canberra was abortion.

"The conservative Christian voice within the Coalition" is speaking with "increasing confidence and assertiveness," says Marion Maddox, author of the forthcoming God Under Howard. The Wellington-based academic, who's spent a decade tracing the links between religion and politics in Australia, notes that on election night new Liberal M.P. Michael Ferguson told a TV interviewer "that he loved the Lord. I can't really imagine that happening in any previous election." Says Baptist minister Tim Costello, "The prevailing wisdom that was, 'Don't talk about your faith, they'll think you're a religious fanatic,' is over."

Talk about it, and they might even vote for you: the government owes its fourth election win in part to candidates like Ferguson, a 30-year-old former campaigner against gay adoption who snatched Labor's key seat of Bass, in northern Tasmania; Louise Markus, a pentecostalist social worker who captured Greenway, on Sydney's northwestern fringe; and Family First, a three-year-old party of Christians whose second preferences boosted the Coalition vote in several marginal seats. David Marr, author of the anticlerical squib The High Price of Heaven, likely had tongue in cheek when he noted recently that "God is working for the Liberal Party." But that doesn't mean he was wrong.

Australia's conservative Christian vote is tiny. The country is not growing more religious, says Maddox, though regular churchgoers (about 1 in 7 Australians) have always been more likely to vote conservative, and theologically stern churches are growing at the expense of more liberal ones. Clearly, the "Christian values" message - pro-life, anti- drug liberalization and gay marriage - also resonates with voters who'd rather spend Sunday on the couch than on their knees. Steve Fielding, Family First's senator-elect, who counts several non-Christians among his 15 brothers and sisters, is sure of that: "We believe we have an affinity with the silent majority of Australians, people who support family values, helping each other, the traditional values that have stood the test of time."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 7, 2005 7:18 AM
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