Anthony Albanese says Senator Fatima Payman’s use of Palestinian rallying cry not appropriate

Headshot of Katina Curtis
Katina CurtisThe Nightly
Labor Senator Fatima Payman at a a pro-Palestine rally in Perth back in October.
Camera IconLabor Senator Fatima Payman at a a pro-Palestine rally in Perth back in October. Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

Labor and Coalition senators have joined forces to urge all their colleagues to refrain from inflammatory comments in a direct rebuff of WA’s Fatima Payman who labelled the conflict in Gaza a genocide and used the rallying cry, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

Senator Payman was not present for the vote.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese earlier said Senator Payman’s remarks and use of the phrase were not appropriate.

The WA senator told reporters on Wednesday a lack of moral clarity was eating away at the heart of Australia and urged Mr Albanese to take stronger action against Israel including sanctions and stopping trade.

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“I ask our prime minister and our fellow parliamentarians how many international rights laws must Israel break for us to say enough?” she said.

“What is the magic number? How many mass graves need to be uncovered before we say enough? How many images of bloody limbs of murdered children must we see?”

Her comments were originally intended as a speech to a rally out the front of Parliament House to mark Nakba day – the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 establishment – but she instead delivered them to a small media contingent.

The Prime Minister and his office were blindsided by the remarks.

Mr Albanese said on Thursday morning he had not spoken to Senator Payman since she made the comments, but that they spoke regularly.

“She’s a young senator from Western Australia,” he told ABC radio.

“But we speak for the Government’s policy and the Government’s policy has been very clear from our opposition, unequivocal, to the terrorist activity of Hamas on October 7, our call for the release of hostages, our call for humanitarian ceasefires, our call for humanitarian aid to be delivered to the people of Gaza, our opposition to any ground offensive in Rafah.”

Asked whether it was appropriate for Senator Payman to have finished her statement with the rallying cry, Mr Albanese said it was not, and reiterated support for a two-state solution.

“It is not in the interests of either Israelis or Palestinians to advocate there just be one state. That is a forerunner of enormous conflict and grief,” he said.

There are strong feelings within Labor’s caucus on both sides of the conflict, with Macnamara MP Josh Burns, who is Jewish, having publicly criticised the Government’s backing of a UN vote on Palenstine’s bd to become a full member.

Senior sources in the party say MPs have been given a fair amount of latitude to air their views on the matter.

But there is some frustration at senior levels about the nature of Senator Payman’s comments, their timing and that she didn’t pursue other pathways such as in caucus or discussions with ministers.

However, some MPs also that Labor’s efforts to diversify its caucus necessarily mean there are more diverse viewpoints within the party.

Opposition Senate leader Simon Birmingham brought the motion condemning the language and calling for respectful debate.

He noted the “from the river to the sea” chant had been used by some in deliberate acts of anti-Semitism.

“They have been acts that have put a stain upon our nation and our nation’s reputation for inclusivity, for tolerance, and a nation that stands strongly against anti-Semitism,” he said.

“Such chants and phrases have no place in the type of political debate we should wish to see in our country, nor in the expression of free will that we should encourage and enable in our country.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Labor was proud of “how much we represent the richness and the diversity of the Australian community” and conscious of the responsibility this brought with it.

“We all need to be peacemakers. We gain nothing by reproducing the conflict here, by talking past each other, by shouting each other down and by insisting on respective absolutes,” she said.

“Most of all, we want to do what we can to break the cycle of violence.

“We want a two-state solution. The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ is not consistent with a two-state solution. And it is that solution which is needed for peace and security of Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

The motion passed 56-12, with only Greens senators opposing it.

Independent senator David Pocock said it took a lot of courage for Senator Payman to speak up against her party’s line.

“This is one of the things that people find frustrating about the party system is that you have people in there who are listening to the communities they represent and they are not allowed to say something,” he said.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be in the party but I imagine there’s a lot of disincentives to breaking ranks, and I’m sure those backbenchers pay a price for it.”

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