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Indigenous leaders warn that ‘hate is raining down on us’ as voice campaign ramps up

Racism is taking its toll on Aboriginal communities during the voice debate, “and it is going to get tougher”, the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, has said at a meeting of the government’s referendum advisory group at Uluru on Friday.

“This is going to be a difficult campaign. It’s one of the reasons that we’ve set aside $10m in the most recent budget for mental health, particularly for Aboriginal people, distributed through the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations for that very reason,” Burney said.

Earlier, one of the architects of the Uluru Statement, Pat Anderson, told the working group that she had seen racism rise rapidly in recent weeks, as the campaign enters its “final stretch”.

“The hate is raining down on us,” Anderson said. “This is not new, but it is in such a concentrated form, and it is nasty and malevolent. So let’s not succumb. We are better than that. We’ve been here for 120,000 years and we ain’t going away.”

Executive director of the Literacy for Life Foundation, Ngemba and Wongaibon educator Jack Beetson, said he was saddened by the tone of the voice to parliament debate, which is having a real-world impact on vulnerable Indigenous women and children.

“I‘ve got a young child, I’ve also got grandkids now. I’m concerned about them, how they’re going to be emotionally scarred by this,” Beetson said.

“We have to behave like responsible adults living in a democracy, where you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to things without doing harm to others.

“We have to consider when we do and say things, how’s that going to fall back on our vulnerable populations? We’re all in this, regardless of what case we want to argue, yes or no. We just have to be mindful of how we prosecute that case.”

On Wednesday, the head of Asio, Mike Burgess, warned the campaign may incite “spontaneous violence”, but there was no threat of a terrorist attack “at this stage”.

Burney said Australian workplaces, public spaces and schools needed to be vigilant to support Indigenous people during the “difficult” campaign.

“We already know that there are young people, particularly at schools, who are being bullied. We can see it amongst our own staff, in media outlets and so forth, that there is a need to be watchful, there is a need to put your arms around people, but there is a great need to make sure people know there is support out there and how to access that support,” Burney said.

The minister said the media had an “enormous” role to maintain a respectful public discourse.

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“This is not a game. This is about people’s lives. This is about the future of our country, and to also make sure that the voices of people come forward,” she said.

“There are Aboriginal people, grassroots people, out there in communities having their say, and I want the media to also talk to those grassroots people, to hear what they’ve got to say.”

The meeting, on the sixth anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, also coincided with National Sorry Day. Reconciliation week also begins on Saturday. The weight of all those significant milestones was being felt by delegates, Burney says.

Labor minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney: ‘This is about the future of our country, and to also make sure that the voices of people come forward.’ Photograph: Dean Sewell/NY Today News

“People are very reflective, very respectful,” Burney says. “People are remembering the long wait for the apology and the fact that 26 years ago was the tabling of the Bringing them Home report. It really reminds you just how recent this history is, and that all of us carry varying degrees of scars and feelings, both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal.”

Burney says the way to heal those scars is for every Australian to “lean on the wheel of history and give it a push” at the voice to parliament referendum, expected to be held in October.

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