Senator Fatima Payman is one of the youngest members of the Albanese Government. Until recently she was unknown to most Australians except in her home state of Western Australia, she first came to attention when she publicly challenged the Prime Minister to be more vocal about genocide in Gaza and this was followed by a Senate debate critical of her and the use of the term: “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free“

Last week Senator Payman crossed the floor to vote with the Greens and some independents on a motion for Australia to recognise the State of Palestine. She was counselled by the Prime Minister and banned from attending the Labor caucus for the remainder of this parliamentary session, effectively two meetings next week.

On the Sunday ABC Insiders program Senator Payman gave a low key but determined account of her position emphasizing that she is not only a member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Caucus but represents the views of many thousands of Labor and union members and supporters. She referred to the diversity of the current national parliament and advocated for respect of a diversity of views being expressed in parliamentary debate. She also indicated she would cross the floor again.

Many Australians will admire and praise Senator Payman for her courage and commitment to the Palestinian community so devastated by the Israeli Defence Forces in the past eight months. She understands the harsh reality of the statistics and horror images coming from Gaza. Her quiet advocacy for a humanitarian response is in sharp contrast to the silence of a majority of Australian Federal parliamentarians.

A number of Greens, Independents and Labor speakers are notable exceptions, and their courage and commitment must also be recognised. However, It is not surprising that many Australians are disturbed that our Parliament has faltered in its response to the tragedy of Gaza so Senator Payman’s recent actions are resonating with many people who want to see a stronger humanitarian response from their elected representatives.

However, there will be those in the Labor Caucus who are critical of Senator Payman. Anyone familiar with Labor rules and culture will know that solidarity with Caucus decisions is sacrosanct and those who dissent can be disciplined with expulsion or other more moderate sanctions.  It is unlikely that there is anyone who has sat in the Labor Caucus who has not reluctantly agreed to decisions of the Caucus, subsequently voting against their personal belief. This is unsurprising as there are many opinions expressed within a political party and we should welcome the fact that Australian democracy is able to manage a range of cultures and beliefs.

However, it is time that Labor Party strategists reconsidered some of the controls it exercises in managing a diversity of priorities in a diverse party. Many years ago, I remember the automatic gift of the ‘conscience vote’ when women’s reproductive rights were considered for reform so those with religious conviction were exempt from demonstrating their solidarity. In subsequent debates about Australia’s participation in overseas war, no such ‘conscience vote’ was recognised.

Senator Payman has certainly exercised her conscience, but has she breached Australian Labor Party rules?

She has actually voted for ALP Policy recognising the State of Palestine, she has followed a long tradition of Labor support for international humanitarian law, and she has responded to the views of her own and many other Australian electorates. In a debate it could well be argued that some of her senior colleagues have deserted party policy and traditional Labor values in trying to manage diplomatic allegiance to Israel and the United States.

However, the plight of the Palestinian people is too crucial to maintain a blame game in the Australian Parliament or indeed within the Labor Caucus. Parliamentarians face a long winter break when some of them may be prepared to reconsider their priorities and reflect on past policy and practice which has seen Australia appear to be at best uncertain or at worst in denial about their international responsibilities.

We need a national government that articulates its condemnation of war crimes wherever they occur and one that is prepared to challenge allies which ignore international law.

We also need our elected government to practice what it preaches by implementing Labor Party policy without conditionality

Australia has a proud record in peacekeeping and response to international crises, so the next few months offers time for leadership in organizing a comprehensive Australian Rehabilitation for Gaza Plan to coordinate skilled personnel, volunteers and aid organizations ready for action to help rebuild Palestinian communities destroyed over the past eight months

It is clear that Senator Payman will continue to act according to ALP policy and tradition so many Australians want to see senior decision makers follow her great example.

Margaret Reynolds was a member of the Labor Caucus 1983-1999 and was one of nine Caucus members who refused to accept the Hawke Government decision to participate in the Gulf War 1991 resulting in a letter of reprimand from the then ALP Federal President.