Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

‘They don’t want to leave their houses’: Helpline says No vote inciting racism, abuse

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Indigenous Australians are afraid of leaving their homes for fear of abuse and racism, crisis counsellors say, with calls to the national helpline for First Nations people surging after the No vote in the Voice referendum.

A quarter of all calls to 13YARN, a 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention service designed and delivered by Indigenous people, have been about racism and abuse since the October 14 vote. That compares to just 10 per cent of calls to the helpline during November last year.

Aunty Marj Anderson, national program manager of 13YARN, says crisis supporters have been fielding a record number of calls from people reporting racism and abuse.Credit: Jim A. Baker

Australians rejected an Indigenous Voice to parliament last month, with 59 per cent of the country voting No. The referendum had proposed to enshrine an Indigenous voice in the Constitution, and was one of the key proposals of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, signed in 2017.

In the week following the referendum, 13YARN fielded 629 calls. In the following two weeks the helpline received 608 and 609 calls respectively, while last week the service fielded 530 calls.

When the service launched in March 2022, it was expected to take around 30 calls each day. The average number of calls from Indigenous people in crisis each week so far this year is 438.

13YARN national program manager Aunty Marj Anderson said the No vote had “opened the gates” to racism and “allowed people to feel they had permission to be racist”.

No advocates have claimed the Voice to parliament referendum stoked division in Australia.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

“Because of the viciousness of the debates around the referendum, it’s made these people who may have underlying racist feelings feel OK about voicing their racist opinions,” she told the Herald.

“As soon as the outcome came out, our lines were hit. We usually get between 40 and 60 calls on a weekend. We had 125 calls the day after the referendum and 95 per cent of them wanted to talk about their anxiety and feelings around being rejected by the country that, really, we own.”

Anderson said a month on from the result, crisis counsellors continued to report First Nations people were fearful of abuse in the community.

“Aboriginal people are telling us they don’t want to leave their houses. They don’t want to go to the shops. They don’t want to go into their workplaces because they just don’t want to face the racism,” she said.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Michaelia Cash in Perth for the start of Voice pre-polling.Credit: Facebook

While the No campaign helmed by Coalition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine pushed the notion that First Nations people did not want the Voice to parliament to succeed, the results spoke differently.

Those living in remote Indigenous communities in the Top End and Red Centre voted Yes, and in some electorates, overwhelmingly so. Across the locations visited by remote mobile polling teams, Yes recorded 73 per cent support.

Associate Professor Rick Macourt, Associate Dean of First Nations strategy and services at the faculty of medicine and health at the University of Sydney, said the intense scrutiny of First Nations people during the campaign had left them in a vulnerable position.

“When you’ve got that much attention, you’ve got that many voices, and particularly non-Indigenous voices being elevated within the media, that is going to be triggering. And the campaign, to be frank, was littered with mistruths and blatant lies,” he told the Herald.

“It’s made people feel comfortable to say things that they probably would have only thought, and previously they would have kept to themselves. Now they think that they can just say these things and do these actions and without fear of consequence.”

Macourt has personally experienced abuse since the referendum, with some so significant he has had to report it to police.

“I’m receiving threats, and they included imagery, people who have access to my home address, my phone number, and as an Aboriginal man being asked to go down to the police station on multiple occasions to report the same information, knowing that it’s not really going anywhere, it’s been really tough,” he said.

“I actually had a police officer ask me ‘Do you really want to continue? It’s such a long, protracted process’. And I think in the back of my mind, ‘You don’t know what it’s like’ and that is triggering.”

If you or anyone you know needs support, call 13 YARN on 13 9276, Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

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