From Baby Bonus to Breathing Tax


It was greeted with shrill indignation by some, skepticism by others, and just plain disbelief by a few more. But the suggestion by obstetrician Associate Professor Barry Walters in the Medical Journal of Australia that families pay a $5000 baby levy at birth plus an additional $800 carbon tax per child for families of more than two children proved, to put it mildly, unpopular.

‘Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing, by the profligate consumption of resources typical in our society,’ Walters wrote. So controversial were his suggestions, they made ripples through the BBC and sent journalists scurrying for opinions in Sydney.

In the responses to the story on the Herald Sun website, the charge of academic elitism was never far away. ‘This nonsense should be regarded as an indictment on our system of academia,’ read one irate response. Walters’s family planning and birth control advice seems somewhat removed from the musings of a pen-doodling academic, but little could be done to save the Perth doctor’s views from an orgy of punishment. A society crazed by procreation and its monetary rewards since Peter Costello’s introduction of the baby bonus in 2004 will take time to take Walters seriously.

Consider a posting by ‘R. Griffin’, who is evidently nervous at coming from a highly fertile family (with seven younger siblings). The youngest of them, the posting claims, is the ‘pride and joy of my entire family,’ with ‘real promise’ of making a contribution to society. That this contribution might be as serial polluter and environmental degrader was inconceivable. ‘Is this academic attempting to suggest that the country would be better off without her?’

Taxes of this sort are never popular, and taxes are difficult to push at the best of times. Everybody prefers money-throwing projects tipped at procreation: Pay me to reproduce, and you won’t be disappointed.

Often the aims are political, and framed around the issue of survival. Environmental concerns are of no consequence when the species, culture or nation are at stake. Cyprus announced earlier this year that it would offer mothers a bonus for more babies. The cultural overtones were deafening: the Government feared the rising birth rates of Muslim immigrants. The Polish Parliament passed legislation in 2005 affecting the same regime of baby benefits for new mothers. And Russia’s Vladimir V Putin, not to be outdone, announced in 2006 that a 10-year program would be initiated to stop the decline of his country’s birthrate.

Here in Australia, Peter Costello’s ‘baby bonus’ program was designed to do the same. The program deemed that the bonus payment would be ‘for babies born or adopted on or after 1 July 2004,’ a non-taxable lump sum payment in the order of $4187 per child. In line with the Howard Government’s peculiar outlook on equality (we are all equal in the field of breeding), every family would receive the sum, irrespective of outcome or assets. The amount is scheduled to increase to $5000 next year.

The result of this baby-craze was administrative chaos. Mothers were rescheduling their baby’s birthdates to maximize their chances of getting a higher one-off payment. Whether Rudd continues this policy remains to be seen.

Children are, according to the utilitarian outlook of economic planners, potential and – notably in the developing world – actual assets. They are only a hindrance if they are the wrong sort of children (in the Greek Cypriot case, the newborn of Muslim immigrants). They not only continue the line, they are a country’s future capital. But the capital a child once had must now be balanced with overall matters of population and stability.

Humans do, when the need arises, take drastic action to curb population numbers in the name of humanity and environment. Often, the recipients of these actions are other members of the animal kingdom. The waste that issues from unwanted litters of cats and dogs is a concern that encourages a seemingly cruel treatment: mass splaying, effectively a mass sterilisation of certain animal representatives we hold dear.

Walters is doing nothing so draconian to the human species, though he does advocate a voluntary sterilisation service. He is, in the main, seeking to redress an environmental loss through an economic readjustment. The way he does so may be challenged – carbon offsets through tree purchases have been challenged for their effectiveness, while the idea of a carbon or ‘green’ tax for that matter, has its limits – but his concerns are, nonetheless, valid.

What many in this debate will forget is that there is nothing new, let alone sinister, about population control. It has been the cornerstone of a decades-old battle being waged in the Latin Americas, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, stifled by conservative religious authorities with staunch backing by an anti-contraceptive Papacy. Even before climate change became the central issue of modern politics, advocates were waging a battle of birth control, and not merely because women had ceased to be mere ‘carriers’ of offspring.

The issue now is how to tackle the cult of breeding in a way that is sustainable. With such sound advice from characters such as Angela Conway of the Australian Family Association (‘I think self-important professors with silly ideas should have to pay carbon tax for all the hot air they create’), the quality of debate is bound to suffer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.