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BABETTE Francis writes: CONCERNS about low birth rates in developed countries have motivated leading politicians to push pro-baby economic incentives.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed Germany's low birth rate to top of the agenda.

Demographic experts warned the population could die out if the trend continued.

Germany's best-selling book is Das Methusalem-Komplott, the Methuselah conspiracy.

It highlights the grim economic reality facing the country's ageing population.

Ursula von der Leyen, 47, a gynaecologist and mother of seven, is the German Family Minister and acknowledges the nation's pension system is headed for collapse.

Mrs von der Leyen, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, says "unless the birth rate rises, we will have to turn out the light".

She offered subsidies of two-thirds of a year's net salary, up to a maximum of $39,000, for an adult who stops work after a baby is born. This has resulted in a mini baby boom.

Similar initiatives in France have lifted the French birth rate to 2.0, which is still lower than the replacement rate of 2.l, but the highest in Europe.

One policy touted was that "middle-class mothers" would be paid cash incentives to start "le baby boom".

It was not clear how "middle-class mothers" would be distinguished from other mothers.

But there was concern that too few babies were being born to professional, better educated couples.

In Australia, Treasurer Peter Costello's policy of a baby bonus of $4100, payable to all mothers on the birth of a child, has improved the birth rate.

More needs to be done. It is not only the expense of having a baby and the mother out of the paid workforce for a year, or more, that is deterring parents from having that third or fourth child.

As in France, professional, better-educated women in Australia have fewer children. A major factor affecting decisions on family size is the cost of educating children.

Most couples aspire to send their children to non-government schools, especially secondary schools.

Significantly, Victoria's new education Minister, John Lenders, sends his children to some of the top private schools.

The minister and his wife decided against the state system for religious reasons.

"We were looking for a Christian education for our kids," he said.

His daughter went to St Margaret's at Berwick and his sons to Carey Grammar.

Lenders said "choice was one of the most important aspects of Victoria's education system".

Victorian families had been able to choose since 1872.

In Britain, there was fierce debate after a Labour Cabinet Minister enrolled her child at an expensive private school.

LENDERS did not agree that Labor ministers should be obliged to send their children to state schools.

But he seems not to realise the irony of his statements.

Couples with upper-class incomes, such as the Lenders, have the choice of sending their children to private schools.

But these schools are out of reach for those on lower incomes. If the minister really cares about all families having a choice, he should bring in a voucher system.

All families would be given vouchers corresponding to the cost of educating their children in government schools.

They could use the vouchers to pay the fees, or part of them, at non-government schools.

Curiously, the leaders of teacher unions, some of whom also send their children to expensive private schools, are opposed to voucher funding.

In doing so, they deprive the core constituency of the ALP, working parents, of choice.

The Federal Government has gone some way towards funding choice.

But it has unnecessarily muddled the situation by basing the funding on the school or the suburb instead of basing it on the child, as with the baby bonus.

Peter Costello must have heard parents say they would love to have another baby but have to think of the education costs.

Give parents vouchers towards educating their children and many more will choose to have those babies.



BABETTE FRANCIS is co-ordinator of the Endeavour Forum, a counter- feminist, anti-abortion group



Member Organisation, World Council for Life and Family

NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the UN