The other day I read a piece in an online magazine written by a woman whose life, she claims, has been ruined by coal seam gas. She and her family live in the Darling Downs west of Brisbane. There are several gas wells on her property, and many more within a couple of kilometres. On her land and all around is gas infrastructure – holding ponds, vents, pipelines, compressor stations, roads. The family's health has steadily declined, but she cannot prove it is because of the gas.
She signed an agreement with QCG (Queensland Gas Company) for the first well nearly ten years ago. She alleges thereafter she was bullied into accepting more. She can't sell up because she would never again be able to afford such a big house (10 bedrooms), and it's where she and her husband run their business.
I have heard a lot about the ill-effects of living in a gas field. Your family gets sick, physically and psychologically; there is constant disturbance of one kind or another; the financial reward is not commensurate with the inconvenience; there is little recourse to government at any level; and the comeback is virtually non-existent. I have no doubt it presents a grim outlook.
My sympathy for this woman was short-lived, however. She has 11 children, eight of whom are still living at home. She bought this property so they could roam free, riding their motorbikes, going fishing, etc. If I were to meet this woman I would have to ask, before I enquired about her daughter's headaches or her son's nosebleeds, whatever had possessed her to produce so many children. Does she not believe in birth control? Does she not understand how to use it? Is she on a personal mission to populate this largely empty continent? Does she not consider it morally reprehensible to blatantly disregard global population pressures?
Australia's birthrate is currently fewer than two babies per woman, below replacement level. This means a contracting workforce to support an ageing population. Women have more options than ever with regard to controlling reproduction and realising ambition in the workplace: many of them are choosing to have fewer children. Large numbers of immigrants, however, helped Australia's population to top 23 million in 2013.
Like many industrialised countries, Australia experienced a baby boom following World War 2 and the fertility rate increased to about 3.5. Then the contraceptive pill in the 1960s brought about a decline that continued gradually until the turn of the century: it was as low as 1.73 in 2001. In 2002 came the 'baby bonus', a tax rebate for first-time mums. This may have been attractive to younger, lower-paid women, but it is uncertain exactly how much impact it had on the birth rate, which increased to 1.93 by 2008, after which it began to fall again. In 2004, Peter Costello, Treasurer in John Howard's government, famously encouraged Australians to have at least three children – 'one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country'. But who listened to him?
Well, someone in the Darling Downs seems to have done. She perhaps wasn't aware that, if everyone on earth lived life like an Australian, more than three planets' worth of resources would be required to produce the jet skis and boats and household gadgets and monster 4WD trucks and airconditioners and clothes driers and patio heaters and leaf blowers and home entertainment systems and smart phones and gaming consoles, and so on.
Let's assume her children don't follow her example, and produce a modest two or three children each. Within 15-20 years she could have 25-30 grandchildren. Let's hope most of them are solar-power generating vegetarians with an environmental conscience, for the planet's and their children's sake.
I have noticed a reverence here for women who produce lots of babies. On talkback radio, blogging parents and Aussie battlers alike proudly boast they've got four or five children or whatever, and are almost congratulated or at least accorded a lot of respect, as if they're doing it for a higher cause than themselves.
And let's not forget the shameful treatment received by this country's first female leader at the hands of the Murdoch media and the Opposition that included being chided for her childlessness.
I wonder a lot about our priorities. Do you?