Intimidation in the chamber

Where’s the outrage over Hollie Hughes throwing slurs around the workplace?

Labor Senator Fatima Payman deserves applause for her bravery in breaking party ranks multiple times last week. Payman urged Anthony Albanese to take concrete action against Israel for conducting a genocide (polling suggests the public agrees), and pushed back against the argument that the phrase “from the river to the sea” is antisemitic.

Payman’s stance on both points were covered extensively by the news media, and there was a lot to cover – it prompted a bipartisan Senate motion condemning the phrase, with both Liberal senate leader Simon Birmingham and Foreign Minister Penny Wong rejecting it, and some Coalition MPs calling for her to be disciplined or booted out of the party altogether. That’s politics, I guess, and I’m sure Payman expected as much.

But there was far less media coverage of the chaos in the Senate on Thursday, when questions on the topic quickly devolved to the point where Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes yelled, “How dare you support terrorism!” at Payman from across the chamber.

Aside from coverage of the incident by Guardian Australia and a solitary article on, where was the eagerness from the news media to dissect Hughes’ outburst or whether she should be disciplined for lobbing a slur at Australia’s first and only Hijabi MP?

The sheer audacity of what Hughes said cannot be overstated.

Payman was born in Afghanistan and fled the Taliban with her family. When they ultimately arrived in Perth as refugees in the early 2000s (her father coming first by boat in 1999) Payman was a child. Her father supported the family by working in kitchens, as a security guard and a taxi driver. He died from Leukaemia in 2018, four years too soon to see his eldest daughter elected as a federal Senator.

The Paymans are survivors of terrorism. So what does Hughes believe she knows about extremism and war that Payman does not?

There won’t be an apology, we all know that. People like Hughes are well-practised at making sure their intimidation and abuse just toes the line of acceptability, or at least plausible deniability. In the chamber, Hughes withdrew her comments when asked. She never accused Payman of directly being a terrorist, but inferred support of terrorism based on the phrase “From the river to the sea.” Their co-worker Pauline Hanson is the queen of these insincere excuses – her testimony in the racial discrimination lawsuit she’s currently facing is littered with them.

It’s less dog whistle, more ‘throwing the rock and hiding the hand’. But people who’ve faced racial and culturally-motivated abuse know exactly what the barbs mean and how they feel.

Albanese and ALP leadership are also implicated by placing a first-term MP in a position where she is subjected to Islamophobic abuse at her workplace. Abuse from her colleagues, no less.

Parliament is even more poorly equipped to deal with racial abuse and harassment than it is gendered abuse and harassment. After admittedly fighting hard to regain control of the chamber, Senate President Sue Lines could only call for “respectful silence” and says she’s going to move on. Penny Wong did not go to bat for Payman, but meekly encouraged the room to “not engage in personal attacks in the context of this debate.”

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young had the backbone to call the incident out for what it was: intimidation, bullying and harassment.

Parliament House is still without a Code of Conduct as was recommended by the 2021 ‘Set the Standard’ review into workplace culture by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Although this primarily examines the issues in Parliament through the lens of gender first, it does include some measures to improve and protect overall diversity.

Perhaps in lieu of the apologies Payman will never receive, we could at least get an update on the recommendations that were supposed to make Parliament a safer workplace. If a status report accompanied every instance of inappropriate behaviour coming from Parliament House, we might see faster progress.

Crystal Andrews is a journalist and founder of Zee Feed.

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