Labor principles

Why Fatima Payman crossing the floor was wrong

'While we may argue vigorously within the caucus and even express contrary views to the party leadership in public, we are bound to support the decision of caucus in parliament'

Senator Fatima Payman with APAN president Nasser Mashni in August 2023. Photo: Facebook
Senator Fatima Payman with APAN president Nasser Mashni in August 2023. Photo: Facebook

First-term Western Australian Senator Fatima Payman became the first Federal Labor parliamentarian to cross the floor since 2005, and the first in government since the 1980s.

It’s a rare occurrence because Labor Party rules mean all parliamentarians are expected to be bound by decisions of the caucus when it comes to voting in the chamber.

While the penalty for breaking this rule is not proscribed or fixed, MPs who have crossed the floor historically have usually been expelled or suspended from the caucus, as is now the case with Payman after she told the ABC’s Insiders, she will cross the floor again on votes relating to Palestine.

Labor’s cultural belief is in the power of collective action – that we are a stronger movement and force when we work and vote together – it’s a discipline that unsurprisingly resembles that of the broader labour movement we are connected to.

This does not mean there is no dissent or diversity of views within the party – quite the opposite. But it means that while we may argue vigorously within the caucus and can even express contrary views to the party leadership in public, we are bound to support the decision of our caucus in parliament.

These were principles I subscribed to in my time as a Victorian Government minister and as an MP dealing with contentious policy issues from time to time.

Payman’s decision to cross the floor last week was to support a Greens motion which called for “the need for the Senate to recognise the State of Palestine.” Both Labor and the Coalition voted against the resolution, which meant it ultimately failed.

Labor sought to amend the motion to include specific mention that recognition of a Palestinian state should be “part of a peace process in support of a two-state solution and a just and enduring peace”. This is a positive sign that the Government continues to view Palestinian statehood as an outcome of a negotiated two-state solution, not something to be unilaterally recognised in the absence of it.

That Payman refused to support Labor’s amendment (contrasting the decision of independent Senator, David Pocock, who did and yet still voted in support of the Greens motion) was disappointing, because it calls into question her commitment to a two-state solution which has been Labor policy for decades. In my view, had she supported Labor’s amendment, she could have more credibly made the argument afterwards that her support for the recognition of a Palestinian state was for one that would live peacefully, side by side with the Jewish state, not one which wants to replace it.

Of course, there are other reasons why Payman should not have crossed the floor in my view. First and most importantly, you can’t vote for a Palestinian state that currently has two separate governments, Fatah in the disputed territory of the West Bank and Hamas, a terrorist organisation in Gaza. Let us also not forget that Hamas still holds hostages from the war it started on October 7 after inflicting mass murder and barbaric horrors on innocent civilians, not just from Israel but also many other countries including Australia.

The second reason which may seem a little more prosaic is the Senate has no business trying to pass foreign policy, which is the purview of the government of the day. It can disagree with it but it can’t create such policy and given Payman shares the government benches with Penny Wong, the leader of the government in the Senate and our Foreign Minister, she should certainly know better than being part of a Greens stunt.

But whilst I disagree with Payman’s decision I want to strongly caution our community that we should not make the mistake of criticising her so hard that it makes her a martyr for her cause. Especially when we can recognise and appreciate that Josh Burns MP, our own champion within the Labor caucus, has publicly rebuked the government for its voting decision in the UN. Now it wasn’t crossing the floor – not even close – but he publicly expressed a dissenting view none the less.

October 7 and the subsequent war has shaken the faith of many people on both sides in supporting a two-state solution, including within our own community. I understand why people find it hard to conceive of a Palestinian state living peacefully, side by side with Israel, after the horrors Hamas inflicted on our family and friends on October 7 and since. But I strongly remain committed to supporting a two-state solution. Clearly, such support is not unconditional, but it must remain our end goal.

And I will continue to dare to dream, because after all Israel and the Jewish world has suffered enough as have the Palestinians at the hands of Hamas. Our resolve to find a peaceful future must only become stronger, not abandoned.

Finally, I hope Senator Payman understands that and understands that being a member of a party is about working as part of a team to deliver outcomes together, and politics is simply the vehicle that enables it. Working together is not about betraying your values, it is about recognising that we will always get more done together than apart.

The Hon. Philip Dalidakis is a former Minister in the Victorian Labor government.

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