As I walk around Manly village there’s not a moment when I don’t come upon a toddler, and every one I see elicits a smile. They are all so incredibly adorable. I say to my partner, ‘Look!’ and he smiles too. Look at that little boy running away from his mother, running towards the water jets on the Corso, getting himself gloriously drenched as he dashes through them. See that little girl on her three-wheeled scooter, maintaining her balance despite the huge pink plastic helmet fitted to her head, the glare of determination in her eyes, a menace to anyone over sixty not nimble enough to get out of her way, whatever her way may be (from the erratic trajectory it’s impossible to guess). And how I delight in the littlest ones just getting the hang of walking and the joyous freedom accompanying it. They’re the cutest of all.
All of these kids have their strollers, pushers or prams in case they (or their parents) get tired. And what contraptions these are. The old high perambulators pushed by nannies through London’s parks can’t even compare. The ingeniousness of them. Built like Sherman tanks, they can accommodate more than one child, on occasion up to three. There’s room below for shopping and all the paraphenalia of parenting – face and bottom wipes, snack boxes, disposable nappies, drink bottles and the rest of it. They can collapse and fit into cars, or come apart, with sections of them ready to serve as baby baskets or car seats; the kids who have been lulled to sleep by the ozone or the poetry of motion need never be awakened or disturbed by the transition. I have seen mothers in Lorna Jane tights and tank tops steering these leviathans while jogging along the esplanade, iPhones in hand, oblivious to the world surrounding. (I’ve nearly been run down twice.)
It’s occurred to me that protective instincts are involved in all this. The Hummer-like musculature of the conveyances (themselves designed to fit into our ever-larger ‘family size’ cars and constructed on much the same principle); the mothers blithely inattentive to the world outside their progeny, their fitness and their smart phones; and the doting smile I bestow on each sweet kid I encounter - all are connected, excessively or otherwise, with the instinctual desire to protect the young of our species. That pram, that car seat, that SUV are metaphors, an essential part of the fantasy that care of the young is a family undertaking, a private affair, having little to do with this wider world our young have unwittingly entered.
The baby boom in Manly was triggered by government policies fashioned to encourage a generation of taxpayers able to shoulder the burden of an aging population. The burgeoning number of child-centred families that resulted was also in line with increasing privatisation of schooling and government services and even forms of entertainment - all part and parcel of the neoliberal project that has shaped societies like ours for some 30-odd years. But there were problems with this. For one thing, there aren’t enough public schools now, and those that exist are woefully overcrowded. For the past four years the kindergarten intake for Manly Village School and nearby Manly West and Manly Vale has been astronomical. It’s not the purpose of this post to go into the inequalities that have occurred since diverting a disproportionate share of federal funding into the coffers of private schools, leaving the public system alarmingly under-resourced, but it has to be mentioned, if only to make the connection between this and the Lorna Jane mothers racing their prams along the ocean foreshore. What's been missing in all of it is a sense of social consciousness, which may also be why this is the seat of Australia’s ultra-conservative prime minister and the more liberal but still conservative Christian premier of our state.
Politics, politics. We never get away from them, even when talking about babes. The joke about privatisation, at any level, of every kind, is that it really isn’t private. The kids that ignite my appreciation represent the past as well as the future. They spark treasured memories of my own children when they were little and the overwhelming love they inspired in me. But they also represent policies put in place by governments almost two decades ago, and today they're at the centre of a heated debate inside the corridors of power. A report due to be released, the ‘intergenerational’ one, tells us things like how many taxpayers will be required to support the retirement and health costs of aging postwar baby boomers. What’s more, the government repeatedly argues, all those future taxpayers will be saddled by the debt we accumulate by spending on our exorbitant demands for health and education and social security safety nets.
It doesn’t take much to unpack this. This very same government is raising the retirement age to 70, so if all goes to plan there will be more people paying tax in any event, especially if accessible, affordable child care is in place to boost female workplace participation, which has been allowed to plummet over past years (all those Lorna Jane mothers). The plan could unravel if the economy tanks and there’s low unemployment, but put that aside for the moment. The crocodile tears shed on burdening future generations with the fruits of our profligacy are shown to be what they are when we turn to the government’s hopes for higher education, in which university will be out of reach for all but an elite, as a result of the 20 percent cut to funding and allowing universities to make up the shortfall by setting fees as high as they wish. Nor does the professed concern for our children and grandchildren cut much ice when so little is being done about climate change. In fact, under the present government, Australia is going backwards. Since the axing of the ‘carbon tax’ ( which was in fact a temporary fixed price before moving to a cap and trade scheme), our carbon dioxide emissions have been rising, and new records are being set for the heating of the planet.