When Ségolène Royal last week published her account of her unsuccessful campaign for the French presidency, the Australian media displayed their usual disdain for women and foreigners: The Age reviewed it in the Lifestyle section, under the tag of “Relationships”.
In France, and other places where people care about politics, the book (Ma plus belle histoire, c’est vous, or My Most Beautiful Story is You) was noted less for the saga of Royal’s personal life and more for the revelation that she had offered, if she won, to make François Bayrou (the centrist leader who ran third in the election) prime minister.
The very idea has outraged much of Royal’s Socialist Party. But why should we care?
Royal’s offer, suspected at the time, represents the sort of possibility that Australia’s party system denies us. Imagine Kevin Rudd offering a senior cabinet post to Malcolm Turnbull and you get something of the flavor. France, the archetype of “old Europe”, shows itself to be less fettered by the past than we are.
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In 2009 Australia celebrates the centenary of “Fusion”, when our middle-class parties decided that fighting “socialism” was so important that they should bury their own differences of liberal versus conservative and free trade versus protection. Ever since, under various names, they have been locked into a single party of resistance to working-class political aspirations.
Last month’s election showed that this class-based system is still alive and well. The late swing that saved the Coalition from a massacre seems to have been concentrated in middle-class territory where the anti-union campaign spoke to deep-seated antagonisms.
Liberals in leafy-green bourgeois suburbs were sufficiently disenchanted with John Howard to tell the pollsters they were going to vote Labor, but in the end they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
Other countries have liberal or centre parties; parties that can deal with both sides, and can temper the economic irresponsibility of the left as well as the political authoritarianism of the right. The Liberal Democrats in Britain, the Free Democrats in Germany, Bayrou’s Democratic Movement in France. But Australia seems unable to transcend its history and sustain parties based on ideas instead of class.