Fatima Payman’s closest allies: The group driving a push to remove Labor from safe seats

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul4,2024
Tetyana Sukkar can’t help but look at the federal government with disdain as she sees the horrors unfolding in Gaza.
“Once upon a time, Labor represented the whole of the community. I just don’t see it that way anymore,” the young Palestinian Australian woman told SBS News.

Sukkar, who also represents the Islamic Women’s Association, said Labor senator Fatima Payman’s inability to vote on motions with her conscience, without punishment from her party, has encouraged her to exercise her own right to vote in the upcoming federal election.

A woman with a headscarf

Palestinian Australian Tetyana Sukkar says members of her community feel their voices aren’t being heard and aren’t represented in politics. Credit: SBS News

She’s referring to a defining moment for the first-term senator, who last Monday.

In doing so, Payman became the first Labor member in more than three decades to cross the floor while in government. She told ABC Insiders on Sunday she’s prepared to do it again if another similar motion from the Greens is put forward.
Her actions led Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to from the Labor caucus on Sunday afternoon.
That move was unanimously backed by caucus the following day. Their decision is in line with strict Australian Labor Party rules, formed 122 years ago, which do not allow for members to vote against policy politicians.
“I did vote for Labor [in the past], and going forward I won’t,” Sukkar said.

“We need to do something, put our foot down and stand up for those that are in need right now.”

Polling analyst Kos Samaras, the founder of the political consultancy firm RedBridge and a former Labor staffer, said Muslim women like Sukkar represent one of the biggest threats to Labor heartland seats as anger grows over the government’s handling of the Hamas-Israel war.
According to Samaras, focus groups suggest young Muslim women who resonate with Payman’s experiences of feeling isolated in Australia will cause the most “problems” for Labor.
“They’re the post 9/11 generation. They’ve grown up in a country that’s made them feel like outsiders … They get abused on the street. They feel like they have no access to power,” he said.
“This particular incident with relation to Senator Payman is just another reminder that if their generation speaks up or bobs their head out of the parapet, they get into trouble.”

That includes Yusra Metwally, an ALP member and part of the Labor Friends of Palestine group. She said that, as the first hijab-wearing parliamentarian, it is “unfair” to see what appears to be Payman being “bullied” by her Labor colleagues.

A woman in a headscarf looks at the camera

Yusra Metwally, from Labor Friends of Palestine and a rank-and-file member of the Labor Party, says she believes Fatima Payman has been “bullied” and “singled out” for standing firm on “an important issue”. Source: SBS News / Rashida Yosufzai

“Every woman from a multicultural background is looking at how Fatima Payman is being treated, given that diversity should never just be about token representation, but actually adopting diversity of views in parliament,” she said.

She said the issue extends beyond Muslim women, and that anyone who prioritises human rights would be disappointed with how the government has handled the Hamas-Israel war.

First hijab-wearing parliamentarian ‘exiled’

In her first speech to parliament two years ago, Payman’s words rang through the Senate chamber.
“I gave myself that audacity to challenge the system and to see how far I would go. To see how much ground I could break. To see how much change I could initiate,” she said.

In her first term, the senator has been confronted with how much she could challenge from within her own party.

In an Instagram post, the senator said she’s been “exiled”.
“These actions lead me to believe that some members are attempting to intimidate me into resigning from the Senate,” she said.

Just halfway into her first term, the feelings of isolation are clear as jarring photographs are taken of Payman in Senate chambers, sitting alone and withdrawn.

A woman in a headscarf sits in parliament

Fatima Payman says she has been “exiled” by her Labor colleagues after voting for a Greens motion recognising Palestinian statehood. Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

It’s a far cry from how she heartily described the positive workplace culture just over a year ago.

“Before I came into this place, [hearing] these horrifying stories … it would scare me. I’d be like, ‘Man, what kind of place is this?'” she told SBS News in March 2023.

“The workplace culture here is amazing, far better than what I had anticipated coming in.”

Anne Aly says Fatima Payman is ‘one of our sisters’

Australia’s first Muslim female MP Anne Aly denies that Payman has been exiled, saying MPs have personally reached out to Payman to support her.

“We have welcomed her into our fold with open arms and we will continue to offer her support, we will continue to reach out to her, we will continue to treat her like one of our sisters,” she told SBS News.

The Muslim vote

Labor’s position on the Hamas-Israel war , who believe the government has not shown adequate support for the Palestinian cause.
But the ALP’s treatment of the first hijab-wearing parliamentarian has now galvanised these groups collectively, vowing to snatch their vote from Labor come the next federal election in 2025.
A coalition of Muslim groups called the Muslim Vote and Muslim Votes Matter has established a political movement aimed at recruiting independent candidates to run in Labor seats with large Arab and Muslim populations.
Their adviser and barrister, Mahmud Hawila, told SBS News the movement is “a well-funded campaign to punish Labor for being complicit in genocide”.
“We need politicians who will not back caucus and lobby groups over their own morals and their own community. We need to start seeing some real representation.”
Aly, who became the first Muslim woman to be elected to parliament in 2016, says she is “very proud” of the diversity represented in Australia’s 47th parliament.
“I could not have imagined a time when I would have opened my eyes and seen the amount of diversity in our Labor caucus … The way in which we deal with that democratically within our party has encouraged that diversity,” she said.

But Hawila says that diversity resembles tokenism when varying views are not welcomed in the caucus.

“Even though we are looking at the most diverse parliament in Australia’s history, we are seeing Fatima Payman being punished for voting for her conscience … That is not diversity. It’s tokenism and diversity cannot just be skin deep.
“[Labor] had their chance to show their quality and back Senator Payman. They made the wrong call and will see the consequences come 2025.”
Samaras said Labor “can only get into trouble” if there are genuine independent candidates in some Labor safe seats.
Those include the southwest Sydney seat of Watson held by Leader of the House Tony Burke, as well as the neighbouring seat of Blaxland, held by education minister Jason Clare. Other seats, like Calwell in northwest Melbourne, are also at risk, according to Samaras.
But not all Muslims agree with their position. Sabrin Farooqui, a Muslim western Sydney councillor and Labor member, believes significant change can come from within major parties, rather than on the outskirts.

“If the Muslim people think they will run as independents, I don’t support this idea. We need to work with the Labor Party to make the change. Instead of leaving the party, we should work together.”

A woman in a headscarf and suit jacket

Labor local government councillor Sabrin Farooqui says diversity is important within politics. Source: SBS News

She says while she agrees with Payman’s sentiments on recognising Palestinian statehood, Labor rules must be followed.

“If I was in her position, I wouldn’t have crossed the floor. I would have worked on it, lobbied big time, in the team to make it happen in.”
But Sukkar believes it’s time to change those rules.
“I think there should be an ability to vote against your party and not be exiled and not be suspended indefinitely and not be [made to feel] like your opinion doesn’t matter,” she told SBS News.

“Ultimately, until Palestine is recognised as a state … and our prime minister and our parliament agrees and aligns with that value, I’ll always have that heaviness in my heart.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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