The global economic crisis, they lament, has brought Australia back to the pack, exposing us as just another second rate nation which has relied on its huge supplies of raw materials to get it through. Now reality has caught up with us and we are revealed as the very ordinary mob we always were.

But these naysayers overlook something: Australians have at least had the foresight to elect a leader to see them through the bad times. Our Prime Minister, it now turns out, is not just an inspired and decisive man of action; he is also a philosopher king. Not content with taking swift and resolute short term measures to cushion the international impact as far as possible, Kevin Rudd has found time to write a treatise on the underlying causes of the collapse and, more importantly, to outline the architecture of a new and improved model to prevent it happening again: capitalism with a human face.

Now captious critics will complain that this is not an entirely original idea; over the years writers from the United States, England, France, India and even Russia have attempted the same feat. And in Australia, every government since 1949 has recognised, to a greater or lesser extent, that the market needs to be tempered by a degree of regulation; that government has a role to play in what is essentially a free enterprise system, and that the public sector must remain a part of a well constructed mixed economy.

Even John Howard, reviled by Rudd as a zealot espousing a neo-liberal brutopia, did not entirely abandon the idea of well-placed intervention, especially around election times; if the federal treasury had no other function, it was always useful for buying votes.

For this reason the predictable screams of the mad right that Rudd has now thrown off his disguise as an economic conservative and has emerged as a rabid socialist complete with horns and tail are not only bad rhetoric but bad politics. By reacting in such an extreme fashion, they give credence to Rudd’s description of them as extremists, greedy sociopaths driven by ruthless self interest. The coming recession and its attendant miseries is all their fault.

Rudd, by contrast, commands the high moral ground as healer and statesman. And in fact his position remains a conservative one, firmly in the tradition of the Liberals own founder, Robert Menzies. He has emphasised the need to preserve the idea of capitalism — not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But he does suggest that the orgy of deregulation that has taken place over the last thirty years has now proved to be a failure and that a sensible, carefully planned, moderate replacement is needed. And he sees the opportunity to set up a new regime not just for Australia, but one that is internationally accepted and recognised.

A bold ambition, certainly but the opportunity to achieve it will never be better. And Barack Obama seems to be talking the same language. Now there’s a worthwhile goal for the American-Australian alliance.

And while we’re on the subject of Obama, here is another philosopher king who is prepared to put his ideals where his mouth is. Apart from berating the shonks who award themselves bonuses while demanding public money to fund their mistakes, the new president has enraged the right by removing restrictions on American aid to family planning programs in developing nations.

The Christian fundamentalists are, of course, outraged, which is good, but the signal it sends to the world – that America is once again here to help, not to coerce — is even better. Change we can believe in, indeed.

One American not overly impressed is Rupert Murdoch, who demanded that Obama defy the American teaching unions (huge donors to Democrat Party funds) and set up an education revolution. He did not, however, suggest that the new system should be modelled on Cuba, which has a higher literacy rate than the USA, or even Australia, where Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are engaged in a similar exercise.

Perhaps he was still a bit miffed about not receiving a public thank you from his old mum, who was named by his local flagship The Australian as its joint Australian of the year. (The other end of the joint was horse trainer Bart Cummings, who has also given Rupert a few good tips over the years).

Meanwhile the real Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson, got a few backs up by suggesting that as January 26 1788 was the day Aboriginal Australia was effectively ended, it might be a nice to consider another date as the national day of celebration. Kevin Rudd replied with a blunt no, and a number of other fogies noted that Australians (and indeed the Aboriginals) were actually very lucky their continent had been invaded by Britain, with its peerless legal and political system.

But it is not just the first Australians who have their doubts about January. Others of us find it strange that whereas other counties like India (whose national day is, coincidentally also January 26) celebrate the start of their independence, Australians are expected to celebrate the start of their colonisation.

With any luck this will change when Australia finally gains its full independence and becomes, like India, a republic. In the meantime, we can only hope that the day itself becomes less of an international embarrassment. It was actually Barry Humphries, not Pauline Hanson, who defined “xenophobia” as “love of Australia,” but he meant it as a joke. At least we think he did. Watching television last week, you’d have to wonder.

Peter Fray

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