Clarification: Wednesday's item should have made clear that Australian PM John Howard sent troops to support the invasion of Iraq, but has deployed most of the remaining Australian troops in non-combat roles since that time. The point I was clumsily trying to make was that Iraq did not become the all-consuming issue in Howard's re-election campaign because Australia has not suffered casualties. As a dedicated Australophile, I certainly didn't mean to minimize Australia's longtime support for the U.S. or the courage of Aussie soldiers who've put themselves in harm's way.
The moral: Never trust foreign correspondents -- we don't have time to Google. ... 5:20 P.M.
Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005
No Worries: The Has-Been does not pretend to be God's gift to man-droughts. Indeed, during H-B's recent visit to Australia, the only drought Aussies seemed to care about was another endless stretch of perfect, cloudless weather in Sydney.
By American standards, Australia's biggest problem is just that: a shortage of obvious problems. The Australian economy has grown steadily for 13 years straight. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard supported the Iraq war but sent no combat troops and just won a fourth term by a landslide. Despite a largely uninhabitable center and most of the deadliest creatures on earth, Australians enjoy the sixth-longest life expectancy in the world (the United States is 42nd). All those crocodiles, great white sharks, box jellyfish, and death adders might as well admit that their work on the Australian continent has been an abject failure.
Australia does have some entrenched problems, such as a long-suffering Aboriginal population and a surprisingly high percentage of births outside marriage. But when a serious national problem comes along, such as the emergence of the racist One Nation party a few years back, both major parties generally work together to make it go away. Because each party has a loyal base and competes vigorously to earn the support of middle-class swing voters, Aussie leaders often have to search the horizon for new problems to solve.
Three's Company: The current government isn't doing anything yet about the man-drought. But they have big plans to take on another obscure problem: Australia's declining fertility rate. Like many advanced nations, Australia has a low birth rate: 1.7, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
Thanks to immigration, Australia is still growing and in no danger of running out of people. Still, the Howard government isn't taking any chances. Treasurer Peter Costello, Howard's deputy and likely successor, is offering parents a $4,000 baby bonus. Costello told Australians that having more children is their "patriotic duty" and urged them to "have one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country." This earned him the infamous headline in one London tabloid: "Bonk Down Under."
The plan may be working. Last year, the number of Aussie births surged to the highest in a decade. Not bad for a country short of men. There's no real evidence that the government's plan had much to do with it, but a headline in the Australian Financial Review proclaimed, "Costello's Maternity Money Puts Couples in the Mood."
Strange as the baby bonus may seem, American Democrats might want to take a look. John Edwards proposed a version in the 2004 primaries as a way to help parents of newborns afford family leave. Tony Blair has proposed a more sweeping "baby bond"—a kind of universal savings account for children.
In fact, Democrats could easily argue that baby bonds and bonuses are a better answer to Social Security's long-term financial challenge than Bush's private accounts. Markets go up and markets go down, but every child born in 2006 will start paying payroll taxes in the 2030s, when the Social Security system needs it most. Bush would no doubt prefer to rely on immigrants to expand the workforce down the road. Why not try a homegrown answer first?