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Fatima Payman: Labor MPs furious at WA senator’s mild punishment for latest pro-Palestine protest

Katina Curtis and Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
Labor Senator Fatima Payman 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.
Labor Senator Fatima Payman 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. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

A key union has thrown its weight behind WA senator Fatima Payman as Anthony Albanese comes under pressure to manage internal discontent with Labor MPs questioning why differing rules on caucus solidarity apply to different members.

The first-term senator said she had been aware expulsion from the party was a possible consequence of her crossing the floor to support a Greens motion supporting Palestinian statehood but said she was doing what rank-and-file Labor members had asked, along with young people in WA and elsewhere in Australia.

Senior ministers publicly rebuked Senator Payman and the Prime Minister told her not to attend next week’s Labor caucus meeting after she broke ranks in the Senate late on Tuesday night – a light punishment that has left many Labor MPs privately seething.

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“This is about justice. This is about doing the right thing and being on the right side of history. And I just implore that and hope that by me continuing within the party, I can convince my colleagues to come on board,” Senator Payman told online youth media outlet 6 News on Thursday.

“It is really important for me to ensure that what I’ve done isn’t just a once-off gesture, but rather, I know that this is part of an incremental move towards recognising Palestine but also it’s about reinstating that hope within our communities, showing them that yes, we do listen, we are representing your voices.

“We were elected to be standing up for our values. It’s not a homogenous caucus. So I do understand that there’s various perspectives within a caucus. But it is important on matters like this that we get to vote with our conscience.”

This puts her at odds with Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who drew on her experience in the years-long fight to shift Labor’s position on same-sex marriage.

Senator Wong said all Labor politicians brought personal commitments to their position but also had to be committed to the collective.

“It’s about our respect for one another and our belief that the collective, we stand together,” she said.

“Even when we disagree, we have those arguments internally as you saw over many years in the marriage equality debate. That’s what I did and I think that’s the right way to go about it.”

Labor’s national executive meets on Friday and could consider a formal complaint about Senator Payman’s actions if one is made.

However, senior sources said it was ultimately more likely to be regarded as a matter for caucus to deal with itself.

CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith, who sits on the ALP national executive, said the construction union stood firmly in support of the senator’s “courageous and principled decisions to cross the floor”.

“Our union has always been proud of its role in the peace movement and we 100 per cent back Senator Payman’s deep commitment to human rights and justice,” Mr Smith told The West.

“The government’s response to Senator Payman’s decision shows mature leadership at a time when promoting social cohesion must be a major priority for all political parties.”

Labor Senator Fatima Payman in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Labor Senator Fatima Payman. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

But Senator Wong said Mr Albanese had shown “great restraint” in his response to Senator Payman’s actions.

Multiple sources have contrasted the first-term senator’s approach to how Senator Wong and WA senator Louise Pratt conducted themselves during the lengthy same-sex marriage fight.

Asked to comment on Senator Payman’s action, Senator Pratt told The West: “A Senate vote won’t create peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Other Labor MPs have shared similar sentiments – one described Senate motions as “howling at the moon”.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MAY 15: Prime Minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese during post budget media interviews at Parliament House on May 15, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Australia's Labor government is grappling with a slowing economy, weaker commodity prices, soaring housing costs and a softening labor market. It unveiled its federal budget on May 14. The budget is seen as a key opportunity for the Labor government to deliver broad economic support that analysts say is fundamental to re-election chances next year. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)
Anthony Albanese. Credit: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Sources said the anger toward the Afghan-born senator was not about her pro-Palestine position, which many colleagues understand and sympathise with.

Rather, it has been her decision to repeatedly push her position publicly rather than lobby through internal channels.

When Senator Wong explained during Tuesday’s caucus meeting how she planned to amend the Greens motion to make it something all Labor MPs could support, Senator Payman listened without raising concerns.

In the chamber, the West Australian then abstained from the vote on Senator Wong’s amendment before crossing the floor to back the Greens.

The West has spoken to multiple Labor MPs who are deeply unhappy with the relatively soft punishment, given the party doesn’t allow members to cross the floor except on rare matters of conscience.

One said Senator Payman’s actions and the response had weakened caucus.

“I don’t think people will forget it,” one MP said.

Another said some colleagues did not support any recognition of Palestinian statehood but abided by the majority position of the caucus — and the party’s national conference — to move Australia along the path of backing a two-state solution to peace in the Middle East.

Multiple MPs point out the lack of consequences for Senator Payman breaking ranks makes it difficult for those with sympathetic positions on Palestine to justify maintaining Labor’s solidarity on this stance.

A senior factional ally said Senator Payman may not understand just how much harder her actions made it for the Government to move closer to the position she wanted.

But other MPs believe Senator Payman knows exactly what she is doing and will not stop pushing until the Prime Minister is forced to act more strongly.

The Labor leadership has been wary of coming down too hard on the 29-year-old as it tried to avoid deepening domestic tensions over the Middle East conflict.

There is also a sense of the need for a degree of pastoral care to bring her back into the Labor fold, although multiple people said the senator had rebuffed or ignored such approaches over recent weeks.

Senator Payman acknowledged she had had “many welfare checks” from colleagues who had “shown you know, their support for my mental health and making sure that I don’t feel alone” but avoided answering whether any had supported her floor-crossing.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher said caucus had tried to be “mature, sympathetic and supportive” of Senator Payman’s position.

“Ultimately, there are also consequences for decisions individuals make and, in this instance, I think the response from the Prime Minister has been absolutely appropriate,” she said.

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