EDITORIAL: Fatima Payman embodies Labor’s identity politics dilemma

The Nightly
She will know sit as an independent on the cross bench.

It was the perfect curtain-raiser for the day of self-indulgent moral posturing to come.

A group of protesters, clad in black and wrapped in keffiyehs, climbed up to the roof of Canberra’s Parliament House, unfurling banners bearing anti-Israel slogans above the building’s front entrance.

On the ground, anti-coal protesters glued themselves to marble pillars.

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The chaos meant the public was cleared from Parliament House, throwing operations on the last sitting day before the winter recess into disarray.

And the main event in this festival of sanctimonious self-righteousness was still warming up.

WA Senator Fatima Payman was the headline act and she hit all her marks.

It was with a “heavy heart but a clear conscience” that the outspoken 29-year-old had made the decision to resign from the Labor party, while staying on in the Upper House as an independent.

Senator Payman said “the ongoing genocide in Gaza” and the Government’s indifference to it had led her to question the party’s direction, and ultimately, quit.

Her resignation creates a host of headaches for her former boss, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

That’s one fewer vote he can count on in the Senate, one more member of a raucous and volatile crossbench.

But there’s a bigger problem brewing.

Senator Payman is the living embodiment of Labor’s modern dilemma.

To stay relevant to young voters and attract a new generation of true believers to contest elections on their behalf, they must speak their language. That’s the language of identity politics, diversity and self-expression, to which the traditional Labor ideals of solidarity and collectivism come a very distant second.

It’s why Labor are so increasingly desperate to stem the flow of voters to the Greens by embracing left wing causes, such as is evident in its deification of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and the pursuit of flawed Nature Positive legislation.

Labor Senator Fatima Payman leaves after a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, July 4, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Labor Senator Fatima Payman leaves after a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, July 4, 2024. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

Senator Payman’s defection shows what can happen when the party’s obsession with this new paradigm backfires.

Can the unbending expectation for solidarity survive this new political age?

Senator Payman claims she was left with no choice — she could not reconcile her responsibility to do what she believed was right with her duty to the party. Others point to the example of Penny Wong, who in 2004 chose to respect caucus solidarity by voting to support John Howard’s amendment to define marriage as a “union of a man and woman”, in defiance of her own deeply-held conviction that same-sex marriage should be legal.

Senator Wong stayed in the tent, argued her case, and eventually, changed Labor’s policy from within. It was a commitment that took more than a decade — too slow, perhaps for those of the new generation.

Like Senator Wong, Senator Payman is an impressive, intelligent person with an interesting perspective and is a voice worth listening to on national affairs.

However, she only has that voice because of her membership in the Labor Party.

Her defection is unfair to the constituents she claims to represent.

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