During the last eight grim years just one fact has allowed a flickering faith in America to survive: most of its citizens did not vote for George W Bush.

True, most of them did not vote against him either; a depressing number did not vote at all. But at least Bush and the gang of mercenaries, morons and maniacs he installed in Washington could never truly be said to represent a majority of their countrymen.

Respect for the office of president, intense as always in the United States, went some way to concealing the fact that the man who occupied it was regarded with increasing loathing and contempt as the years passed. In the end, Bush had become the most unpopular leader since the beginning of polling and had so tarnished the Republican brand that the Grand Old Party’s chosen candidate had to pose as an anti-Bush maverick and team up with a mad caricature to give himself a chance.

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But change was in the air, so much so that rather than risk any extension of the failed conservative regime, Americans across the spectrum were prepared to entrust their destiny to a black man. Well, 53 percent of those who voted were; the international euphoria at the election of Barack Obama has tended to obscure the fact that the 2008 poll was not a landslide along the lines of 1964 or 1972. Certainly it was an historic moment, a catharsis and an inspiration; but whether it represents a genuine turning point for America, let alone for the rest of the world, is less clear.

Obama will enter the White House with enormous power, a healthy majority in both houses of Congress and no real political baggage. But he takes over an economy in recession, two wars, and the enormous but hitherto scarcely acknowledged challenge of climate change. With all the goodwill in the world it will not be the best of times to play the philosopher king in a Kennedy-style Camelot.

Nor should the rest of us raise our expectations about America swiftly resuming its role as a generous and outgoing nation, playing the role of Superman in a ceaseless quest for truth and justice. If Obama has any overblown ideas he will swiftly be reminded that the American voters elected him to solve their problems, not those of anyone else, and that if he wants a second term he’d better get on with it.

In strictly practical terms, Obama’s presidency may actually be bad news for Australia in particular. In the current climate the Democrats will almost certainly be more inclined to retreat down their traditional road of protectionism to appease their core constituency of factory workers and small farmers than to pursue the wider goal of free trade. And of course while Kevin Rudd might like to see himself and the new President as soul mates, their relationship is never likely to be as cosy as the Bush-Howard coupling. Our days as Washington’s pet poodle are well and truly over; another pooch entirely is to be installed in the White House.

Of course, none of this alters the fact that Obama’s win is overwhelmingly good news for us all. Things are seriously out of joint when the richest and most powerful nation in history is generally disliked and mistrusted by its fellow democracies for its perceived arrogance and hubris and that nation reinforces the perception by dismissing their concerns with threats and insults. Obama’s election has already gone a long way to restoring the dream that the United States, with all its faults and failings, remains the best hope of mankind.

America, welcome back to planet Earth. Welcome home. 

And right at home, the collapse of ABC Learning and the government’s enforced bail out is yet another reminder of the dangers of privatisation, especially where essential services are concerned.

There is no longer any doubt that child care has become an essential service; the model of two working parent is now considered necessary to most household economies and the sudden resignation of all mothers from the workforce would cripple large sections of the national economy.
The old-style ad hoc arrangements with friends and relatives which were a previous generation’s idea of child care cannot any longer come close to filling the need for properly qualified supervision, let alone the expectation of some form of pre-schooling that is supposed to go with it.

Thus when the privately owned and run, profit-driven organization that controlled nearly a quarter of Australia’s child care places went belly up, Julia Gillard had no real choice: something needed to be done immediately, and if this involved rewarding private failure with public funds, well, that was the way it had to be.

But of course it didn’t. If all child care had been a properly regulated and supervised public service run on a not-for-profit basis, as some of it already is, the government would not have had to throw good money after bad. There would still be taxpayer subsidies involved, but at least the government would control where they went; it is unlikely that the public servants in charge would be driving around in Ferraris.

The lifestyles of the directors of ABC Learning makes it clear that the enterprise has not been short of money in at least some areas. It would be nice to recoup a bit of the $22 million we are spending to redeem their administrative bungles. But it would be nicer still to have a society in which the necessities of life were not handed over the tender care of profit-driven entrepreneurs in the first place.

Some things are just too important to be abandoned to the roller coaster of fear and greed that powers the marketplace. Australia’s children, who increasingly depend on well run child care, are some of them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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