Fatima Payman: WA Senator will not be expelled from Labor despite crossing floor

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Katina Curtis
The Nightly
Labor Senator Fatima Payman (centre) crosses the floor in the Senate.
Labor Senator Fatima Payman (centre) crosses the floor in the Senate. Credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

West Australian senator Fatima Payman will not be expelled from the Labor Party despite breaking ranks over support for a Palestinian state in a bombshell move.

The 29-year-old first-term senator crossed the floor to back a Greens vote in support of Palestine, insisting she has upheld the party’s ethos in the face of a bid from senior Labor figures to head off a split in the party.

She sat out several procedural votes on the motion calling on the Senate to recognise the state of Palestine before joining Greens senators and independent David Pocock to support it.

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Ultimately, the motion was defeated because the Government and Opposition voted against it.

Senator Payman said crossing the floor was the “most difficult decision I have had to make” since winning a surprise third Senate seat for Labor in WA at the 2022 election.

“Although each step I took across the Senate floor felt like a mile, I know I did not walk the steps by myself,” she said.

“I walked with the West Australians, who stopped me in the streets and told me not to give up. I walked with the rank-and-file Labor Party members, who told me we must do more.

“I walked with the core values of the Labor Party: equality, justice, fairness and advocacy for the voiceless and the oppressed.

“I walked with my Muslim brothers and sisters who told me they have felt unheard for far too long. And I walked with the people of Palestine.

“I am proud of what I did today, and I’m bitterly disappointed that my colleagues do not feel the same way.”

Labor rules prevent its MPs from crossing the floor except on rare matters of conscience, meaning the Afghan-born West Australian senator could face expulsion from the party.

Senator Payman, born in Afghanistan, is the first federal Labor politician to have done so in almost 30 years.

However, a Government spokesperson said Senator Payman would not be expelled.

The spokesperson repeated Senator Payman’s sentiment that she maintained strong Labor values and intended to continue representing the West Australians who elected her for the party.

“There is no mandated sanction in these circumstances, and previous caucus members have crossed the floor without facing expulsion,” the spokesperson said.

“As reflected in our amendment, the Government supports the recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a peace process towards a two-state solution.”

Labor Senator Fatima Payman (right) walks with Independent Senator David Pocock as she crosses the floor to a motion moved by the Australian Greens to recognize the State of Palestine during debate in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Labor Senator Fatima Payman (right) walks with Independent Senator David Pocock as she crosses the floor to a motion moved by the Australian Greens to recognize the State of Palestine during debate in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

As agreed at its 2023 national conference, the ALP’s policy platform states that the party “calls on the Australian Government to recognise Palestine as a state” and expects this “will be an important priority”.

Senator Payman has felt intense personal pressure to speak out in support of Palestine and has increasingly moved further from the Government’s position over recent months.

She has also become isolated from colleagues and said she had not spoken to anyone on Tuesday night before her decision to cross the floor.

It comes after she made a statement in May accusing Israel of genocide and Australia of not doing enough and subsequently quit three foreign affairs committee positions.

Her move came despite senior Labor figures trying to head off a split in the party.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong had asked other party leaders to support a change to the motion, stating that “the need for the Senate to recognise the state of Palestine as a part of a peace process in support of a two-state solution and a just and enduring peace” was urgent, rather than the simpler recognition formula the Greens had put.

The minister said the Australian Government had been working with the international community to create momentum for lasting peace in the Middle East and that a two-state solution was the only way to break the cycle of violence.

Frontbencher Anne Aly told The West she had heard from Middle Eastern countries during an emergency summit on aid for people in Gaza that Australia is perceived to be doing a lot to support Palestine, despite the rhetoric from domestic activists.

The Coalition refused to back the Government amendment, offering its own further alteration, which explicitly set out five preconditions for a two-state solution.

Labor did not support that amendment.

Senator Payman accused her colleagues of attempting to water down the sentiment.

She drew on Labor luminaries, including Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam, to say she was acting in line with the party’s long-held ethos.

However, Labor MPs have grown increasingly frustrated with how Senator Payman has chosen to express her pro-Palestine position, saying she failed to follow well-established traditions that allow vigorous debate of differing views in private settings, such as caucus meetings.

Multiple sources point to the example of Senator Wong, who fought for years internally to shift Labor’s position on same-sex marriage without once crossing the floor.

Even Labor MPs sympathetic to Senator Payman’s position believe her decision to support the Greens motion must come with consequences.

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