analysis

Parliamentary house of horror for Anthony Albanese as he fails to sell Labor message amid Fatima Payman drama

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
Rogue senator Fatima Payman has officially quit the Labor party to sit as an independent after she was suspended for crossing the floor of parliament.

A week is a long time in politics.

And, if you ask anyone in Parliament House, this past fortnight — the last session before a five-week break — has warped all notions of time to feel like years.

After all, it was only last Monday — on the back of Peter Dutton’s nuclear announcement — that Anthony Albanese caught the Liberal Party off guard when he announced former NSW treasurer and energy minister Matt Kean would head up the Climate Change Authority.

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Then, the next day, Julian Assange began his long journey home to Australia after a 14-year legal battle, stopping via Saipan to plead guilty to US espionage. His arrival into Canberra, accompanied by politicians-turned-diplomats Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd, was met with much fanfare and much politicking.

SAIPAN, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS - JUNE 26: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the United States Courthouse on June 26, 2024 in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, appeared before the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan on Wednesday for a change of plea hearing. Following his guilty plea to a felony charge under the Espionage Act, Assange was sentenced to time served and subsequently released, paving the way for his return to Australia as a free man, after years of incarceration and intense lobbying for his release from across the political spectrum. Assange's lawyer said that the work of WikiLeaks will continue "and Mr Assange, I have no doubt, will be a continuing force for freedom of speech and transparency in government," media reports said. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the United States Courthouse in Saipan after being released. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

And in amongst that, first-term WA Labor senator Fatima Payman defied the caucus to cross the floor, and vote with the Greens on a motion of Palestinian statehood.

The government had hoped for a quieter second week before the lengthy winter break.

After months of talking up how much better off Australians would be come July 1, by the time the date finally rolled around, all Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his government wanted to talk about was tax cuts for every tax payer, the increase in award wages, and energy bill relief.

Labor’s political messages instead were quickly sidelined, after Senator Payman gave an explosive interview on Sunday with ABC’s Insiders, confirming she was prepared to cross the floor again. She was quickly summoned to the Lodge and indefinitely suspended from the party.

All week, Labor tried to stay on message — Dorothy dixers abounded during Question Time in an attempt to let the cabinet spruik its new cost-of-living relief, and cast aspersions on the Coalition’s quickening trickle of pre-election policies.

But the whole time, the Senator Payman cloud hung over them.

Her expertly timed Thursday press conference meant there were only about six journalists in the final Question Time of the week. Paired with a stripped-back public gallery — thanks to a massive security breach and disruptive protests earlier in the day — Labor had little live audience for the message they hoped to impart before five weeks away from Parliament House.

And the next five weeks will be critical.

Amid mounting speculation of an early election — fuelled in part by worse-than-expected monthly inflation figures and the threat of an interest rate rise in the next Reserve Bank meeting — all sides of politics are expected to be out in force.

The Coalition, who have in the past few weeks announced initial details of their nuclear plan as well as their plan to introduce last-resort divestiture powers to keep supermarkets in line, is expected to announce more policies in the coming weeks.

Peter Dutton told the joint party room meeting this week that the Coalition leadership “will have more to say in the coming weeks about energy, cost-of-living, and social policy”.

“Rest assured that policy work is well underway,” he told the Liberal and National MPs and senators, according to party sources, adding that the shadow expenditure review committee had been “extremely active and disciplined”.

“This is about ensuring that the path we are on will put us in the best state of preparedness we could be at this point in the electoral cycle,” one source reported Mr Dutton had said.

Within the Coalition ranks, there is wargaming being done for an election to be called for September, December, or March, despite Mr Albanese maintaining there won’t be an election until May.

Mr Dutton urged his entire team to “take a break” over the next five weeks, saying he wants them to “be ready” for whenever Mr Albanese makes the trek to Yarralumla to fire the starting gun on the next campaign.

Meanwhile, the usual pre-break Labor caucus rally cry was subdued this week amid the Senator Payman fallout. According to party sources, Mr Albanese told his team that over the next few weeks, MPs and senators needed to “keep talking” about all the ways the Labor Party was assisting working people, and warn them about the risk of a Dutton government.

Senator Fatima Payman has quit Labor over her stance on Palestine. Picture: AAP
Senator Fatima Payman has quit Labor over her stance on Palestine. Credit: AAP

But Labor will have to do more than just fight off the Coalition’s winter break tactics, with the Greens too making clear they don’t plan on staying quiet over the break.

With the goal of getting the government to “shift” on the ongoing war in Gaza, the party will run a doorknocking campaign across the country, focusing on a number of key lower house electorates to try and get Labor members to cross the floor as Senator Payman did last week.

They’re expected to focus on Peter Khalil’s seat of Wills, Ged Kearney’s Cooper, Justine Elliot’s Richmond, Patrick Gorman’s Perth, and Graham Perrett’s Moreton, but are leaving the door open to hitting other electorates as well.

By the time Parliament resumes in August, the Greens say they will have put together another motion to introduce into the lower house, the content of which has not yet been determined, but could include calls for sanctions or recognition.

There’s a belief that Senator Payman’s defection from the Party could further alienate voters who share her views, and whether Muslim community leaders ultimately wind up forming their own party and benefit from that, or the Greens, it’s clear the Labor Party is facing trouble, even in traditional strongholds like Tony Burke’s Watson and Jason Clare’s Blaxland.

Labor knows that the war in Gaza is a big issue that concerns a large number of its voters, but it also knows that cost-of-living is the number one issue in the country, and will want to shift focus back to what it’s doing to address that over the weeks ahead.

They might not like it, but Liberal senator Simon Birmingham on Friday summed up what a lot within Labor are thinking.

“They’ve spent the last few weeks and this budget session of Parliament talking far too much about themselves and divided and tearing each other apart over conflict a long way away, rather than focusing on the cost of living pressures that Australians genuinely face,” he said.

After all, by the time Parliament resumes in mid-August, the economic reality could be even grimmer — with the Reserve Bank meeting the week prior to discuss whether or not to hold rates steady, or increase them for the first time since last November.

That will depend on what crucial quarterly inflation data reveals later this month, as well as other economic indicators like the latest unemployment figures.

Fending off attacks from all sides, Labor is under pressure to regain control and get on top of its message as responsible economic managers.

After all, a lot can happen in five weeks.

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