July 22, 2024

Fatima Payman once “proudly served” the Labor Party. Now, she’s handed it a Senate-sized headache with the next federal election less than a year away.

Payman’s defection to the crossbench leaves Labor with fewer seats in the upper house than it had back at the start of 2022, when it was still in opposition.

Her election in the first place was a departure from the norm of the previous few decades in that it gave Labor five of the 12 Senate seats from Western Australia.

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The last time that had happened was in 1990.

More recently, the party’s haul from out west had dropped to as low as three seats 10 years ago.

But while the anti-Coalition landslide in the 2022 election handed Labor a reasonably comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, the translation wasn’t the same in the Upper House.

The Greens were the main beneficiaries there, picking up three seats (although losing one of them soon after when Lidia Thorpe went independent).

Payman’s was Labor’s 26th seat, the same number it entered the election with, and now her defection leaves the government on equal terms with the Liberals – at least before the Nationals’ five are taken into account.

What functional impact her resignation from the ALP will have on the government’s chances of passing legislation remains unknown.

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This afternoon, the 29-year-old said she would represent the interests of her Western Australian constituents.

“I am here to be WA’s voice, not just on this matter (of Palestinian recognition) but various issues that Western Australians have raised with me, from incarceration rates of Indigenous people to locking up kids as young as 10 years old,” she said.

“From the rising cost-of-living pressures, to families living in cars and tents due to the housing crisis stop. From struggling to put food on the table and pay the bills to the climate crisis.

“These are all the issues that Western Australians care about.”

But asked whether she would largely vote along Labor lines on issues outside Palestinian recognition, Payman was noncommittal.

“I will have to see it and take it based on the motions that are brought forward and the pieces of legislation,” she said.

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Without opposition support, Labor previously needed the backing of the Greens and at least two independents to gain a majority.

Now, it needs three.

Two has proven enough of a headache this term, particularly on the subject of housing.

There, the Greens have thrown roadblocks in front of first the Housing Australia Future Fund, which took a steep $3 billion in extra public and community housing spending to force through the Senate, and now the help to buy and build to rent bills.

Those two programs remain stuck in upper house limbo today even as the government looks to prove its credentials ahead of an election in which the cost of living, including the housing crisis, will be a crucial topic.

Payman’s defection doesn’t change the fundamental problem for the government: if the Coalition opposes legislation, it needs the Greens’ support to get any bill through parliament.

What Payman has done, though, is add a potential extra headache if the Greens come to the party but the other crossbenchers aren’t on board.

Convincing three independents is a harder task than persuading two, and Payman has given no guarantee she’ll support the government’s agenda.

“Time will tell. I haven’t thought that far,” she said.

Parliament now takes a breather for its five-week winter break.

We’ll find out what Payman’s thoughts are after that.

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