DAN JERVIS-BARDY: Fatima Payman was the Labor dream who became a nightmare

Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
She will know sit as an independent on the cross bench.

Fatima Payman was a Labor dream.

The daughter of Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban, she was schooled in the Labor ways as a union organiser, young Labor president and staffer.

Young, Muslim, bright, tough — she embodied so many of the qualities that modern Labor want to project to voters.

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Her election in 2022 might have come as a surprise but once in the Senate, she seemed destined for a long and successful political career.

Under the wing of fellow WA senator and factional ally Sue Lines, she might have risen from the backbench to the ministry and into cabinet.

We will never know.

The dream for Labor has turned into a nightmare after the 29-year-old defected to the crossbench, so incensed at her Government’s “indifference” to the Gaza conflict that she felt no choice but to walk away.

Senator Payman’s career is forever changed.

But what does it mean for Labor?

The implications are profound.

It starts with immediate political and reputational challenges and extends to existential questions for the party and Labor movement.

Let’s start with the immediate.

Senator Payman’s defection means Labor has lost a vote in the Senate.

The Government will now need the support of the Greens and three crossbenchers to pass legislation that the Coalition opposes.

That’s likely to include bills on industrial relations, housing and the environment, or anything else Peter Dutton wants to pick a fight on.

Senator Payman will probably side with Labor on most issues but has signalled she will push her former colleagues on things beyond Palestinian recognition.

In her resignation speech on Thursday, she singled out the incarceration of 10-year-old Indigenous kids as one issue she would advocate as “WA’s voice” on the crossbench.

Might she use her newfound freedom to push the WA and Federal Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility?

Then there’s the short-term political fallout.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been bruised and embarrassed by the Payman affair.

He chose to tread carefully when his youngest senator first broke ranks to support the Greens’ motion on Palestinian statehood — despite deep anger inside the party.

She then embarrassed him on national television when she vowed to cross the floor again, leaving the Prime Minister no choice but to come down harder.

Fatima Payman
Senator Fatima Payman has quit Labor "with a heavy heart" over her stance on Palestine. Credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

Senator Payman’s claims that she has been exiled and intimidated behind closed doors are devastating for Labor.

Whether those claims are true or not — many Labor MPs dispute them — will matter little.

The perception, so often reality in politics, is of a bunch of faceless political careerists who tried to bully a young Muslim woman into silence.

And yet it didn’t work.

Which brings me to the final point — what does this all mean for Labor?

Senator Payman’s defection creates uncomfortable questions for Labor about itself.

Here you have a young woman of colour and conviction — the Labor dream — who has felt compelled to quit because she can’t conform to the rigid structures it insists upon.

Senator Payman’s falling out with Labor was caused by a split on the single issue of Gaza.

But the tumultuous past week has exposed a bigger, broader challenge for Labor.

How can it seek to recruit, and speak to, people such as Senator Payman if their voices will be shackled, permitted only to be raised in the privacy of caucus meetings or in sanctioned forums like party conferences?

These structures might have suited times past. But times change.

The treatment of Senator Payman will inspire the Muslim groups planning to mobilise their communities to unseat Labor MPs, particularly in western Sydney and Melbourne.

A few months from now, Senator Payman might have receded into political irrelevance sitting on the crossbench alongside oddballs like Pauline Hanson, Lidia Thorpe and Ralph Babet.

Her cries for Palestinian recognition will get less attention when they’re not coming from inside the Government.

The decision to resign from Labor might prove the biggest mistake of her young political career.

But what if it doesn’t?

That really would be a nightmare for Labor.

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