Fatima Payman’s stand on Palestine exposes undemocratic political system

July 10, 2024
Protesting outside NSW Labor HQ on July 10 over Labor's treatment of Senator Fatima Payman. Photo: Peter Boyle

The controversy created by Senator Fatima Payman’s exit from federal Labor points to the crisis of the two-party parliamentary system.

Payman is a young, former Afghan refugee.  She is also a former union organiser. For several months she has been publicly outspoken about Labor needing to do more to defend Palestine.

She was bullied out.

Her “crime” was to break Labor caucus solidarity by crossing the floor to vote with the Greens over — wait for it — a Labor policy position that would have recognised a Palestinian state.

The outrage that has erupted since her decision has included a large amount of Islamophobic attacks.

Labor, the corporate media and the Coalition have fallen over themselves to abuse her.

Payman has been described as a turncoat, a religious zealot and even a non-Australian, motivated by greed.

Roger Cook, Premier of Western Australia, outdid the lot in vileness by indirectly referring to her as “cane toad poison”.


The West Australian on July 7, 2024

But the most disturbing Islamophobic comments have come from Opposition leader Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister.

Dutton and Albanese are reacting to The Muslim Vote group blaming Albanese’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza as a key reason why Muslims are so angry with Labor and support Payman.

Dutton’s comments about Muslim candidates causing “disaster” if elected are nothing short of racist.

Usman Khawaja, Australian cricket’s star opening batsman, described them as “bigotry at its best” and “fuelling Islamophobia from the very top”. He also correctly pointed out that MPs play a big role in normalising Islamophobia.

While Albanese tried to sound less blatantly racist, he did unfairly target Muslim communities who are saying they are sick of being taken for granted.

Albanese claimed that if “faith-based political parties” ran in elections it would “undermine social cohesion”.

Hypocritically, he ignored all the religious-based Christian values parties, such as Australian Christians, Family First Party and others.

Such comments show just how worried Albanese and Labor are by the groundswell of pro-Palestine support in long-held Labor seats.

In the recent British elections, despite Labour’s huge victory over the Conservatives, four seats in Muslim constituencies were won by independent candidates standing on pro-Palestinian platforms.

That could happen here, including in ministers Tony Bourke and Jason Clare’s electorates.

But it is not just electoral losses that motivate dog whistling on the scale we have seen in recent weeks.

It is also the way Payman’s defiance challenges Labor’s undemocratic methods for keeping its ranks in check, while serving the needs of capital.

Abiding by the supposed democracy of the Labor caucus is considered to be a more important principle than abiding by policy decided at Labor conferences, such as recognition of a Palestinian state.

Labor decided at its 2023 conference that it: “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; and c. Expects that this issue will be an important priority for the Australian Government.”

Labor caucus positions are largely decided by party operatives and senior MPs, whose first loyalty is to maintaining the capitalist status-quo, not to respect internal democracy or serve their constituencies.

Payman has done something that Labor’s career politicians cannot fathom: she has stood up for a principle and against genocide.

The real reason behind Labor’s bullying and attempted isolation of Payman is to warn any other Labor MP thinking of breaking caucus solidarity that they will receive the same treatment.

However Payman is not isolated.

She has received huge support from unions, Labor 4 Palestine groups, Muslim communities and thousands of pro-Palestine campaigners across the country.

If Payman’s decision to stand up for the mild policy Labor members decided on can rock the establishment in the ways we’ve seen, it points to a challenge for us all.

Can we collectively mount the serious political challenge needed to the anti-immigration, antisemitic, Islamophobic right-wing?

In the context of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, now entering its ninth month, it is not only possible, it is also a necessity.

[Sue Bull is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]

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