The row over the Voice to Parliament has triggered a tsunami of brutal racism across Australia, with one helpline swamped by calls since the debate began, Indigenous Australians have claimed.
The nation will vote in the referendum on October 14, but Indigenous and political leaders fear it may have sparked a bitter divide that will take years to heal.
Savage taunts and slurs have targeted Indigenous organisations since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed to a public vote on the proposal.
‘The toxic debate over the referendum has unleashed a wave of racist vitriol both online and in real life,’ Channel 10 and NITV presenter Narelda Jacobs says.
‘It has become too personal, and to some it feels much like it’s become open season on racism.’
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce also told TV show The Point, which airs on NITV and SBS on Tuesdays, that the referendum has ‘inflamed things’.
‘People are getting away with saying things which are just completely out of order. This debate has given people the idea that they can get away with saying it now.’
Indigenous TV presenter Narelda Jacobs said the Voice debate is ‘open season’ for racists
Community nurse Bec Thompson told the show she had been abused at a remote country pub just for having the Aboriginal flag sticker on her car.
‘A middle-aged, middle-class, grey-haired white lady just walks up to me and said, ‘Half-castes like you need to get back to the mission’,’ she said.
‘I think the debate around The Voice has made people feel like they have permission to just come up and say it.
‘I was happier when she just thought it on her own.’
The crisis support helpline for First Nations Australians, 13Yarn, says it’s been flooded with calls for mental health help because of the surge in racism.
‘The added stress from the Voice is overwhelming that community,’ said Marjorie Anderson, national manager of the hotline. She said calls had increased by 108 per cent in the four months since the campaign started.
As well as racist abuse, she said many Aboriginal Australians were being grilled by non-Indigenous people about the Voice, which was adding to the stress.
‘Often Aboriginal people don’t know how to answer,’ Ms Anderson added.
‘They don’t want to answer the questions in case they get abuse if the person has got a different opinion from them.’
Karen Mundine, of Reconciliation Australia, says her organisation has been targeted by racist trolls calling up and abusing their staff.
The row over Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Voice to Parliament has triggered a tsunami of brutal racism across Australia, say activists
‘We’ve had an increase of people who feel that they can just ring and say the most horrible things to staff who were just doing their job,’ she said.
‘They’re not even campaigning. They’re just doing their job.
‘And I feel it’s really sad that it’s unleashed this kind of vitriol and hatred.’
Leading Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo has been a lightning rod for much of the abuse and recently revealed just some of the taunts he’s faced.
As well as racist memes depicting Indigenous people as ‘grifters’, ‘wife beaters’ and ‘primitives’, he has also faced a string of personal threats, he said.
‘People have been let off the leash,’ he told the BBC.
The row comes as leading Yes activist, Professor Marcia Langton branded the arguments behind No campaign as racist or stupid.
Leading Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo (right) has been a lightning rod for much of the abuse
Community nurse Bec Thompson told the show she had been abused at a remote country pub just for having the Aboriginal flag sticker on her car
Marjorie Anderson of crisis support helpline for First Nations Australians, 13Yarn, says it’s been flooded with calls for mental health help because of the surge in racism
Indigenous Olympic gold medallist and former politician Nova Peris says she has suffered racism all her life, and faced it two or three times a week even in Parliament.
‘But you see it now – social media gives people a platform to hide behind,’ she said.
She has joined Michael Long on the Long Walk to Canberra for the Voice and still believes the country can reunite in the wake of the Voice referendum.
‘The reception we’ve been getting is 90 per cent positive,’ she insisted.
‘It’s a different thing to be able to hide behind social media or a telephone as opposed to coming out and saying it to someone’s face.
‘This is about uniting this country. It’s an opportunity to make this country whole.
‘I’ve said, when White Australia acknowledges us, you don’t lose your 250 years of your history. You gain 65,000. This isn’t division. This is about unity.’
Indigenous No campaigner Warren Mundine warned of the rise in racism in response to the referendum when the voting day was confirmed last month.
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce told NITV show The Point the decision to hold the Voice referendum has ‘just inflamed things’
‘This thing is about division and dividing this country and the racial abuse that we’ve been hearing over the last few months,’ he said in August.
‘Everyone knows the pressure that was put on me to send me to almost suicidal positions, and this is what this prime minister has done.
‘This prime minister from day one had attacked people who had a different opinion to him, call them names.
‘And that opened up the floor for the whole division to start with all the horrible racial abuse, with all the horrible bigotry that’s been going on out there – and it’s all Albo.
‘He’s the one who started this, he’s the one who’s brought it out and if he thinks that the Voice is the answer to fixing everything – this magic wand – then he’s not answering the real question.’
Daily Mail Australia is not suggesting Mr Mundine’s claims about Mr Albanese are true, simply that he publicly made them at a public press event, streamed live on television.
Warren Mundine says ‘all the bigotry’ was the fault of the PM who ‘from day one, had attacked people who had a different opinion to him’
13Yarn’s Ms Anderson said the change has to come from the top and blamed politicians for triggering the problem.
‘There is a level of racism in this country anyway,’ she said.
‘To see this, the politicians’ behaviour making it okay for other people to act like that as well, they need to look in the mirror and think about what they’re doing.
‘And think about the impact they’re having on already traumatised communities.’
The PM’s office stressed Linda Burney, the minister for Indigenous Australians, had called for respectful debate during a recent sitting of Question Time in Parliament.
‘The mental health and wellbeing of all Australians is a top priority for this government,’ a spokesman for the PM told Daily Mail Australia.
‘The Albanese Government has announced $10.5million to boost mental health support for First Nations people during the referendum campaign.
‘This will promote wellbeing and provide additional mental health support for First Nations people, including in regional and remote areas.
‘We encourage all Australians to engage in this referendum campaign in a respectful way. It’s a once in a generation opportunity for constitutional recognition.’