KATINA CURTIS: Senator Fatima Payman can expect to face long-term consequences for her decision to break ranks

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Katina Curtis
The Nightly
Senator Fatima Payman hasn't resigned from the Labor Party despite crossing the floor. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)
Senator Fatima Payman hasn't resigned from the Labor Party despite crossing the floor. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

The diminutive Fatima Payman cut a lonely figure as she stood in the cavernous hall on Parliament’s top floor, surrounded by a press pack.

But the only sign of the 29-year-old’s nerves was her uncertainty about what to do about the camera operator on the phone trying to sort out a live stream.

The Labor senator from Western Australia had just taken what she described as her most difficult decision, crossing the floor against the rest of her party to vote with the Greens on a motion for the Senate to recognise Palestinian statehood.

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This came amid intense speculation that doing so would lead to her expulsion from Labor.

Even Payman was unsure of the consequences — she said afterwards she’d been indirectly told it would mean being removed from the party, but nothing had been explicitly spelled out.

Ultimately, nothing happened fast.

A Government spokesperson let it be known there was no mandated sanction and the move, although rare, was not unprecedented.

But on Wednesday morning, Anthony Albanese asked Payman not to come to the next caucus meeting.

Labor’s caucus solidarity rules are the focus of intense speculation and not a small amount of folklore.

Coalition MPs frequently point to the “binding” of votes to claim their parties are the true bastions of democracy.

Nationals leader David Littleproud claimed Payman’s action meant Labor MPs had the green light to cross the floor and oppose ending live sheep exports (it’s unclear whether any want this particular freedom).

But just ask Liberal MP Bridget Archer how crossing the floor goes down in her party.

Or Fiona Martin, to whom Scott Morrison never said another word after she added her vote to the late-night rebels to include protections for transgender students in religious discrimination laws.

The rules in the ALP constitution say a majority decision of the federal parliamentary caucus is binding on all members for matters that are not dealt with in its policy platform, or by the party executive or national conference.

They do not spell out any punishment.

The caucus rules are tightly held and more explicit but they also apply differently depending on whether votes are on legislation, matters that have formally come before caucus or other issues.

Caucus did not make any decision regarding a position on the Greens’ Palestine motion when it met on Tuesday, although Foreign Minister Penny Wong flagged she intended to seek to alter it.

Secondly, the party platform as agreed at last year’s national conference explicitly calls for Australia to recognise Palestine as a State and says the party base “expects that this issue will be an important priority”.

When Payman said she believed she was acting in line with Labor ethos, she was probably correct.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be longer-term consequences.

Labor is a party that, at its core, believes in solidarity.

The focus for the Government’s upper echelons right now is broader than the act of one backbencher — it is seen very much as a time to promote unity in the community, not division.

Plus, Australia’s foreign policy is not decided in the Senate.

A scene in the Senate.
Labor Senator Fatima Payman (centre) crosses the floor in the Senate. Credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

However, even before Tuesday night’s vote, Payman was seen as having cruelled her chances of promotion in what could well be a long career in the Senate.

This has broader ramifications for WA Labor’s dominant left faction and its succession plans for Sue Lines.

Payman acknowledged that “many comrades who feel the same way” on Palestine disagreed with how she had gone about conveying her message.

That’s putting it mildly.

Frustration within Labor has grown over recent months, particularly after she blindsided everyone from the Prime Minister down with a speech to the media (intended originally to be a surprise rally appearance) saying Israel was responsible for genocide and Australia was not doing enough.

The long direct flights between Perth and Canberra give WA politicians a chance to talk and bond in a way few others have.

Yet Payman has become increasingly isolated as she grappled with her conscience and attempted to reconcile pressure from her community to make a stand with the slow diplomatic movement from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

Parliament House can be a lonely place and the pressure has taken a physical toll on the young senator.

She kept her decision to speak out last month and her ultimate vote on Tuesday tightly held, not even flagging it with her staff.

During the series of procedural votes on Tuesday night, Payman sat with a staffer for her office neighbour David Pocock, and the independent senator walked over to check in between each division.

Afterwards, she said each step across the floor felt like a mile.

Little wonder. It may have been a short distance but the fallout will be long.

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