Crossing the line

Senator Fatima Payman wants to represent her constituents. What does it mean that the ALP won't let her?

In the Senate chamber on Tuesday evening, WA Labor Senator Fatima Payman crossed the floor to vote with the Greens and independents Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock to support the recognition of the Palestinian state. Payman’s vote is being labelled an act of defiance – the ALP forbids MPs and senators from voting against party policy, and she is only the fourth to break this rule since 1986. She is being branded as a ‘rebel’ (just a month after Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes implied in the senate chamber that she supported terrorism.) 

“I walked with my Muslim brothers and sisters who told me they have felt unheard for far too long,” Payman said afterwards.

“And I walked with the people of Palestine, for the 40,000 killed … I walked for humanity. I am proud of what I did today and am bitterly disappointed that my colleagues do not feel the same way.”

For this rebellion, Payman is being punished. Yesterday, Anthony Albanese confirmed the Senator will be barred from the Labor caucus for the rest of the parliamentary session, which ends on July 4.

The fact that she is being punished at all is outrageous. Payman’s decision to support recognition of Palestine is not a rogue position. YouGov polling from May found one-third of Australians support the move. Of Labor voters, almost 40 per cent support Palestinian recognition while only 12 per cent oppose (the rest are unsure). 

It’s not as if the ALP’s official position is to oppose Palestinian statehood. Labor had wanted to amend the motion to make Palestinian recognition “part of a peace process towards a two-state solution.” In May, Australia voted for Palestine to be upgraded to observer status at the UN General Assembly – step towards full UN membership and future statehood recognition. At the time, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said: “Australia no longer believes that recognition can only come at the end of a peace process. It could occur as part of a peace process.”

Labor believes peace will ultimately come in the form of a two-state solution. Payman’s logic for crossing the floor is consistent with this, too, as she explains: “We cannot believe in two-state solutions and only recognise one.”

Has Payman really committed such an egregious betrayal that justifies her effectively being silenced within the party, even temporarily? Even the Liberal party allows backbenchers to cross the floor if they feel so compelled. What’s the point of the Labor caucus if not to hear dissenting views and explore the full scope of opinions within the party?

Senator Payman was simply doing her job, and is being punished for it. 

When Labor was elected in 2022 there was genuine excitement at the fact that this would be Australia’s most diverse parliament ever. At the time, Anthony Albanese said his government was determined to show ‘multicultural Australia’ that anything was possible, lauding the ALP’s “candidates from diverse backgrounds right around the country.”

Twenty nine-year-old Payman is part of this story: the youngest member of the Parliament; the first hijabi Parliamentarian; an Afghan refugee with direct experience of state conflict. Her voice is one that the party should be listening to intently on this issue.

Labor has been happy to celebrate representatives like Payman as a way to distinguish itself from the overwhelming whiteness of the Coalition. But showcasing diversity is different to empowering those who embody it. Now that Payman is challenging the established view, she is being shut out.

Payman, for her part, is not having it: “I was not elected as a token representative of diversity,” she reminded the party after the vote. “I was elected to serve the people of Western Australia and uphold the values instilled in me by my late father.”

Judging by comments on social media (imperfect analysis, but a quick way to check the pulse) the general public sentiment of her decision to cross the floor is supportive. They see her bravery, and they see her taking her responsibility to represent the people seriously, even if that means challenging her own party. 

Labor now has an opportunity to read the room and change this outdated rule in a demonstration of its commitment to truly embracing diverse communities. Senator Payman has shown us what it means to listen to and represent the views of voters, even when the personal cost is proving to be high.

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