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Party games in darkening Canberra

  • 22 March 2013

From his vantage point in Canberra, the renowned Belgian/Australian Sinologist and literary critic Simon Leys (real name Pierre Ryckmans) has recently translated Simone Weil's essay 'On the Abolition of All Political Parties'.

Ryckmans has obviously a mean sense of humour as well as a serious purpose. His stated aspiration is to 'provide the starting point for a healthy debate' about the role of our political parties — a debate to be illuminated by the insight, and the 'hopeless utopianism', of Simone Weil.

It's tempting to ponder just how much Canberra has contributed to Ryckmans' project. Our political leaders are suffering from the disenchantment of the electorate. Canberra and its political hackery has even less appeal now than it has had for a long time and the Canberra jokes are getting darker — it's gone from being 'Pyongyang without the dystopia' to 'Kabul without the hope'.

And in a recent speech former prime minister Bob Hawke admitted that parliament was held in 'contempt', that it was a 'charade', 'not a real chamber where the issues are discussed on merits'. Instead, 'it's a formality where the decision has already been taken' in party rooms and MPs are expected to toe the line.

In light of this, it may be worth responding to Ryckmans' offer. In an election year it's a call to another kind of discussion — not about policy particulars but about the role of our political parties and whether they are acting as vehicles for effective, creative politics, or not.

When I mention this Weil essay to people — most often those who work for a political party — they tend to smile slowly, narrow their eyes and lean back in their seats. I wonder if that's what Trotsky did in 1933 after he met Weil in Paris (though I'm sure the young political staffers of Brussels and Canberra would resist the comparison).

To a man such as Trotsky for whom the Party — and the political identity it lent him — was everything, Weil must have been maddening: a woman from a Jewish background who studied philosophy and worked in a factory (and who later developed a religious — Catholic — orientation). She might have had left-wing Communist sympathies, but she really didn't 'fit'. (Charles De Gaulle, a