View from the Hill: Fatima Payman Alleges Attempts to ‘Intimidate’ Her into Quitting the Senate

Rebel Senator Fatima Payman has escalated her confrontation with the Labor Party by claiming “some members” are trying to intimidate her into quitting the Senate.

The government is uncertain whether the Greens will exploit the situation with another pro-Palestinian motion to have Payman – suspended from caucus but not expelled from the party – voting against Labor a second time.

That would invite her expulsion. Meanwhile, the affair is distracting from the government’s promotion of its July 1 tax cuts and other cost-of-living relief.

After Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Sunday suspended Payman from participation in caucus over her defiance of Labor’s solidarity rule, Payman said in an Instagram post late Monday that she’d been “exiled” and had “lost all contact with my caucus colleagues”.

Senator Fatima Payman. Credit: Instagram
Senator Fatima Payman. Credit: Instagram

She’d been removed from meetings, group chats and whips’ bulletins, she said.

“I have been told to avoid all chamber duties that require a vote, including divisions, motions and matters of public interest,” she said.

“These actions lead me to believe that some members are attempting to intimidate me into resigning from the Senate.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported sources saying Albanese had told Payman she should think about whether it was appropriate to continue holding the seat if she was not representing Labor’s line. The Prime Minister’s Office said it did not comment on private conversations.

Payman said she would abstain from voting on matters in the Senate for the rest of the week – the last before the winter parliamentary recess – “unless a matter of conscience arises where I’ll uphold the true values and principles of the Labor Party”.

This was an obvious reference to any further motion on Palestine. Payman crossed the floor last week on a Greens motion. Albanese acted on Sunday after she said she would do the same again if the circumstances arose.

Payman said in her statement that she would use the time “to reflect on my future and the best way to represent the people of Western Australia”.

The battle between the WA senator and Labor is all about the “solidarity” rule requiring MPs to vote as a bloc. But the government is struggling to explain and justify how that rule is so important that a young Muslim woman is being disciplined for acting on what she casts as a point of principle.

Talking about how Payman should have behaved, Albanese on morning radio resorted to a football comparison.

“I watched the Hawks win their fifth game in a row yesterday,” he told the ABC. “The way that they won was that they’re not the best team on paper, but they act as a team.

“They pass the ball to each other. They don’t just kick at random. They don’t say, ‘We won’t worry about the rules, we’ll throw rather than handball’. They listen to the coach’s instructions.”

But his footie anecdote jarred. It sounded too simplistic for what is a more vexed and complex clash over a foundational Labor rule.

Payman’s position on the substance of the Middle East issue is broadly in line with the ALP platform.

That says the National Conference:

a. Supports the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognised borders;

b. Calls on the Australian government to recognise Palestine as a state.

Payman says she has been isolated by her Labor colleagues. Credit: Instagram
Payman says she has been isolated by her Labor colleagues. Credit: Instagram

Last week’s Greens motion declared “the need for the Senate to recognise the state of Palestine”. In her Sunday Insiders interview, Payman said she backed a two-state solution. (She abstained, however, on an amendment on the two-state position that Labor put last week).

Labor’s rule that MPs can’t cross the floor is sacrosanct. Even so, the degree of passion in the caucus over Payman’s breach is notable. The rule is deeply embedded in Labor’s history. Perhaps Labor MPs also feel potentially vulnerable, because this rule protects them from ever having to consider bucking the party line in a parliamentary vote (as Liberals sometimes do).

It’s hard to recall in recent times any substantive issue raising such internal anger as Payman’s flouting of the rules. There is a level of “how DARE she” fury.

Albanese’s anger came through clearly in his Monday interview, in which the PM wanted all attention on the cost-of-living relief coming into effect this week.

Asked why he’d suspended Payman, the PM said it wasn’t because of the policy she’d advocated.

“It’s because of the question that you have just asked me. [Today is] a day where we want to talk about tax cuts,” and cost of living relief. “Instead, you have seamlessly segued into the actions of an individual, which is designed to undermine what is the collective position that the Labor party has determined.”

Albanese acted on Payman’s Sunday threat – before she actually carried it through – to cauterise the problem she posed. But this proved impossible.

It’s hard to conclude anything other than Payman is on her way out of the Labor party, one way or the other, and that she ends up on the crossbench. (She is not up for election next time – she has another four years to go.) Whether she’s expelled or leaves herself, there would be much blowback for Labor.

Predictably, Payman is receiving support from the Muslim community, where the notion of caucus solidarity presumably doesn’t much resonate.

The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) said in a statement it “stands firmly” with Payman. APAN said it was disturbed by the suggestion toeing the party’s line “is more important than standing up for the rights and lives of Palestinians”. It urged other MPs to follow her example.

Kos Samaras of the political research firm RedBridge (and a former Labor official) posted: “Over the past few months, we interviewed dozens of young Australian Muslim women, all born in Australia. Their main points were striking:

  • They have faced social abuse throughout their lives.
  • They are regularly reminded of their perceived inferiority.
  • They lack a political voice. When they attempt to speak up, alert, or draw attention to their disadvantages, the society they were born into, grew up in, and now raise their own children in demands their silence.”

It is easy to see how they would identify with Payman.

The Palestinian issue has been a huge problem for Labor from the start of the war. Payman has now taken the disruptive effect to a whole new level.

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