October 18th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: ENVIRONMENT: Don't spoil a good story with the facts ...

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Reshuffling the decks

AGRICULTURE: Unrestricted water trading a danger to farmers

FEDERAL ELECTION: Deregulation, drought, the dollar and the $7.5 billion surplus

FAMILY: AFA Conference calls for strengthening of marriage law

COMMENT: Poor always the losers in a middle class game

LETTERS: WA capitulates on Competition Policy (letter)

LETTERS: Taiwan and the UN (letter)

LETTERS: First Mildura Irrigation Trust (letter)

LETTERS: Rural economy (letter)

LETTERS: The future of rail (letter)

TAIWAN: Making strides in biotech

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Flying down to Rio / Shooting stars and black holes / Digging holes and filling them up again

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Dr Pell's new appointment welcomed

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AFA Conference calls for strengthening of marriage law

by News Weekly

News Weekly, October 18, 2003
The National Conference of the Australian Family Association, held in Adelaide early this month, called for reform of the Family Law Act to protect children, and amendment to the Marriage Act to preserve the unique status of marriage as "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life."

The Conference heard a number of expert speakers discuss the state of marriage today, and the impact of falling fertility, unemployment and the growth of de facto relationships on the family.

One important address was given by Dr Bob Birrell, who heads the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University.

Dr Birrell has conducted extensive research on the causes of the decline in fertility in Australia today, which has seen the number of children per female fall to around 1.7, well below the level required for the population to replace itself.

Marriage and fertility

Dr Birrell has found that married couples almost invariably wanted to have children, and the decline in fertility is closely related to a retreat from marriage towards de facto unions and people remaining unmarried.

Interestingly, he found that for married women aged between 35 and 39, almost all (87 per cent) had at least one child in the family; and that the proportion had not dropped over the past 15 years.

"The implication is that despite the hurdles married couples face in raising children, there has been no drop in the propensity for married women by the time they reach these ages to have a child. They may have fewer children than in the past because marriage tends to be delayed, but having children still seems to be central to married life."

In contrast, women living in de facto relationships were significantly less likely to have a child living in the family.

Dr Birrell said that this finding points to the significance for fertility levels of the sharp drop in marriage rates since 1986. He concluded, "The main proximate cause for declining fertility in Australia is a decline in the proportion of women who are married.

"This is where policy attention needs to be focussed if the decline in fertility is to be arrested."

Dr Birrell also found that there is a large and growing number of "unpartnered women" in their 30s, numbering around 450,000 in 2001. Of these, most had at one time been married, reflecting the rise in the divorce rate.

However, almost a third of unpartnered women aged between 30 and 34 were lone parents, and 44 per cent of unpartnered 35-39 year old women were lone parents. "These are very high proportions," he said.

He also found that the number of lone parents was increasing rapidly, reflecting the decline in marriage rates, particularly in low-income groups.

In a paper which complemented Dr Birrell's, Barry Maley, senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, spoke on the need to reform the Family Law Act to protect the partners to a marriage and their children.

He said that the divorce rate is four times higher than 40 years ago and nearly one child in three is living apart from one of its natural parents. About 30 per cent of children are living with a lone parent.

He said: "The instability of marriage is at the heart of the disorder in our family system."

Unilateral decisions

Mr Maley said, "At present, four out of five divorces are granted on the application of only one spouse. It could be that this represents the wish of each partner to divorce, but in many cases it does not.

"So the present rules allow one spouse to impose an unwanted divorce on the other. And unilateral divorce permits one spouse to exploit the other without any restraint by divorce law."

The conference adopted a resolution which supported the introduction into the Family Law Act of a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting in the event of divorce, for the long-term welfare of the children involved.

It also announced that in 2004, the International Year of the Family, the Australian Family Association would mount a campaign to highlight the central place of marriage and family formation in a stable and prosperous society.

It will focus on the economic issues which affect the size of families and fertility rates, the need for taxation relief for families, and the consequences of high levels of male unemployment and under-employment in preventing family formation.

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