On 7 December 2017, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedom) Bill 2017 became only the 29th private senators’ or members’ bill to be passed into law by the Federal Parliament. (Issues surrounding the passage of such bills are covered in a recent Library FlagPost, together with a list of the previous 28 private members’ or senators’ bills to have been enacted.)
The very first was the the Life Assurance Companies Bill, introduced in November 1904 by the Member for Darling Downs, Earnest Littleton Groom, to regulate insurance of the lives of children under 10 years of age.
As Groom explained in his second reading speech,
“The general practice is for persons of the poorer classes to insure the lives of their children for amounts of £7, £8, and upwards, so that if the children die at an early age, they will be able to provide for their burial. These insurances are prompted by motives which honorable members must applaud, since they spring from feelings of self-respect and honest pride. The average cost of a funeral is, I am informed, in Sydney about £4 10s, and in Melbourne, £5, and there are also incidental expenses for medicine, mourning, and so on. It has been felt, however, that if persons could assure the lives of children for unlimited amounts, assurances might be taken out for improper purposes. The Bill provides a safeguard against that.”
Groom noted that there were currently more than 70,000 such polices in Australia, varying in amount according to the age of the child. The Act received Royal Assent on 23 November 1905.
The private member’s bill throws light on an important aspect of Australia’s social history.
In the absence of a social welfare system, the economic and social conditions for many families at the time of Federation were precarious, with many children ‘malnourished and likely to die from infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and pneumonia’. This was compounded by the routine use of unregulated proprietary infant soothers, teething mixtures and other nostrums and remedies containing ingredients such as opium, arsenic, and mercury. (Indeed, in 1907 the Royal Commission on Secret Drugs, Cures and Foods reported that Australians had the highest per capita consumption rate of such products in the western world.)
According to the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia No 1, in 1901, over 35 per cent of Australia’s population was aged under 15. However, deaths among young children and infants accounted for more than 25 per cent of all deaths. The rate of infantile death (within the first year of life) was particularly high at 103.61 per thousand live births registered in 1901, rising to 111.36 in 1903 though declining to 81.77 in 1904. Death rates for children under 10 were also high. This, combined with a birth rate which had declined sharply over the past 30 or so years, created widespread public concern, including among the nation’s leaders, given the imperative to fill Australia’s ‘empty spaces’ as a bulwark against the feared invasion from the north. (Australia’s long term decline in fertility in the later part of the 19th century mirrored similar long-term declines in other western nations.) This was compounded by the fact that Australia experienced a net loss of population due to emigration between 1902 and 1906.
Public anxiety rose sharply following the publication in June 1903 of an essay on NSW’s declining birth rate by the state statistician T. A. Coghlan—widely reported in the press, including under alarmist headlines such as ‘Australia’s Peril. The Race Suicide’. As a result, the NSW Government established a Royal Commission (headed by Charles Mackellar) into ‘the causes which have contributed to the decline in the birth-rate of New South Wales, and the effects of the restriction of child-bearing upon the well-being of the community’. The Royal Commission attributed the declining birth rate to the ‘deliberate and intentional avoidance of procreation’, by people ‘bent on gratifying their selfish desires, and on pursuing social advancement’.
In regard to infant mortality, the Commission pointed to the need, inter alia, for: the regulation of private hospitals and maternity homes; improved feeding, nursing and hygienic care of infants; the compulsory instruction in public schools for all girls over 13 in infant feeding and care; making infantile diarrhoea and gastro-enteritis notifiable diseases for foundling homes and similar institutions; and better regulation of commercial infant foods. It also recommended tighter restrictions on patent medicines.
Plateauing briefly between 1901 and 1907, the long term decline in Australia’s fertility continued until 1984. However, there were significant and steady improvements in infant and child mortality due to improvements in public sanitation and hygiene, improved maternal health, nutrition and material well-being, health education and the advent of programs of mass vaccination. Death rates for children aged four or younger, including infants, fell by 95 per cent over the 20th century.
. New South Wales, Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales, Volume 1. Report., Sydney 1904.