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Payman upset exposes Labor’s structural problem

Senator Fatima Payman… the deaths of 40,000 people, including 14,500 children, was too much. Photo: Lukas Coch/AAP

“The problem Labor faces is determining when an issue becomes of such seriousness that it deserves a conscience vote. As more and more diverse people become part of the Labor Party, the differences of opinion will become more challenging,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

Labor members are angry at the conduct of Senator Fatima Payman in “crossing the floor” and many relieved that she has left the Labor Party to sit as an independent. 

Michael Moore.

This is despite a landmark motion passed at the Labor conference in December 2018 calling on the next government to recognise Palestine as a state. 

The senator was in sync with the Labor Party, but not with the caucus. Labor has a structural problem rather than a problem with a single individual.

Caucus solidarity has served the Labor Party well for more than a century. It is very rare to see one of its members vote against the party. As Penny Wong has explained, she had to work for years within the party to gain support for gay marriage – a deeply personal issue.

Senator Payman could not have foreseen this situation when she agreed to stand as a Labor candidate. Her election preceded the war in Gaza. And no doubt she had been working within the caucus attempting to elicit a stronger response from the government on the actions of Israel emphasising the urgency for recognition of the state of Palestine.

Criticisms of Netanyahu, Israel and the Zionists are valid – just as are the criticisms of Putin and Russia in attacking Ukraine. However, no doubt I will be accused of anti-semitism. Such accusations help frame Israel and the Zionists as the victims. 

Ordinary Palestinians are overwhelmingly the real victims. With the infrastructure of Gaza effectively levelled, the displacement of millions of people and the deaths estimated to be around 40,000 people including 14,500 children and 9500 women was too much for Senator Payman. As it should be for the rest of the world.

No matter what has happened in the past, this style of war is simply unacceptable. To leave the Gaza Strip in ruins, to use starvation and famine as a weapon of war, to leave millions without clean water, sanitation and shelter is outrageous.

The Israeli and Jewish lobby in Australia and internationally is incredibly effective. One indicator is the bill recently debated in the Federal Parliament to establish a commission to look at anti-semitism in our universities. The government has already asked the Human Rights Commission to examine racism in the universities. 

Apparently, this is not good enough for the Jewish lobby; for them the inquiry must be specifically anti-semitism. In Australia, and particularly in our universities, it makes much more sense to examine racism wherever it occurs. What about racism against Asians or Aborigines or Sikhs or South Pacific Islanders or Muslims or the Sudanese or other Africans?

Wherever it occurs, racism is unacceptable. 

For Senator Payman, seeing her own government’s weak reaction to the war in Gaza must have been incredibly frustrating. However, she is not on her own here, as illustrated by the motion that passed the 2018 Labor conference in Adelaide in support of recognition of the Palestinian State. 

Other factors were, no doubt, considered when the caucus reached a decision on delaying the recognition of Palestine. The lack of transparency on donations to political parties along with limited information on lobbyists, makes it hard to understand what goes into decisions made by the cabinet and by party leadership.

Labor has to consider at what point does caucus solidarity trump conscience. In the past, the caucus has allowed a conscience vote in cases such as abortion law reform and voluntary active euthanasia. 

In both cases the right wing of the Labor Party, for example, held very strong views that largely originate in their Roman Catholic backgrounds. On the other hand, the Labor feminists and those who support women’s right to choose, are found throughout the caucus. 

It would also have been possible to consider a conscience vote on the recognition of Palestinian statehood in the context of such broad support. Instead, they have now given Senator Payman a platform that is widely understood and supported by so many Labor voters.

The problem Labor faces in the future is determining when an issue becomes of such seriousness that it deserves a conscience vote. As more and more diverse people become part of the Labor Party, the differences of opinion will become more challenging to manage.

Even though Caucus solidarity has served Labor well for more than a century, it is time for Labor to consider the issue of conscience and the role that it might play in allowing members of its caucus to express alternative opinions. 

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

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3 Responses to Payman upset exposes Labor’s structural problem

Jack says: 9 July 2024 at 7:21 am

I don’t get all the blame being heaped on Israel. Hamas started this most recent chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflicts with its massive terrorist raid including rape, murder and abduction.
Every country is entitled to defend themselves against such attacks and pursue the destruction of the enemy forces. Countries that believe in the rule of law should support the countries attacked, which includes Israel just as it does Ukraine. Hamas hiding amongst the civilian population of Gaza, in breach of the rules of war, is the prime reason for civilian casualties. It’s part of their playbook to garner international sympathy and so many people fall for it. Israel stopping now would be the equivalent of the Allies in World War II stopping short of the total defeat of Germany.
People wanting to see an end to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza should be calling for the immediate unconditional surrender of Hamas and the return of the surviving hostages.
Of course Hamas will not do that because they are more interested in themselves than the welfare of the people they’ve governed without elections since 2006.

Jesus Urbina says: 17 July 2024 at 6:19 pm


Not to mention that there have been independent reports out of Gaza that there is sufficient food and water being brought in, though Hamas intercepts these deliveries for their own and then sell off any surplus to Gazans at exorbitant prices. There’s been video footage of Hamas violence to Gazans who attempt to take food and water directly from the delivery trucks.

Bulldog says: 13 July 2024 at 4:00 pm

I noticed Michael Moore neglected to mention the reason why Israel invaded Gaza…. to find the hostages taken on Oct 7th and still not released 9 months later.


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