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Experts have expressed concern over the impact an increasingly toxic public debate on the Voice to parliament will have on young Aboriginal people.
Mental health practitioners and emotional and social wellbeing organisations say even a small rise in racial hostility is likely to disproportionately affect younger generations, who are also more exposed to it by social media.
Helen Milroy is concerned about the emotional distress experienced by young Aboriginal people as a result of the toxic public debate surrounding the Voice.Credit: Warren Clarke
Palyku woman, Professor Helen Milroy, a fellow of the Rural Australian New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), said the prevalence of misinformation “actually just inflames the situation and creates conflict and controversy”.
She said young people “combatting” even a slight rise in vitriol in their daily lives could potentially lead to disproportionate emotional distress.
“When there’s a lot of misinformation out there and people are making these big claims that things are going to be terrible, or they’re misrepresenting what this Voice is really all about then, as a young person, it’s sometimes really hard to combat that,” Milroy said.
Comparing the current noise in the public arena around an Indigenous Voice with the buildup to the 2008 national Apology to the Stolen Generations, Milroy said the intensity of racial vilification was dialled up whenever landmark Aboriginal affairs issues are brought to the attention of mainstream society.
“There was a lot of misinformation about what impact the Apology might have had and what it was trying to achieve. And there was a lot of racism that was occurring at that time, which led to a lot of distress, even for children who were being challenged about these issues at school,” she said.
As a consultant psychiatrist with the Western Australia Department of Health, Milroy specialises in child and adolescent psychiatry. Her experience also saw her appointed as a commissioner to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse between 2013 and 2017.
Reconciliation Australia chief executive Karen Mundine said the organisation has seen a rise in reported racial abuse. However, there’s also been a reduction in abusive interactions when it came to institutions, “like daily engagement with shopkeepers and health workers and that kind of thing,” Mundine explains.
Karen Mundine, chief executive of Reconciliation Australia.Credit: Louise Kennerley
Social worker Karlie Stewart, 27, said Aboriginal young people were always adversely impacted when race and vilification come into play in the public arena and the hateful rhetoric can rapidly lead to feelings of low self-esteem and intense disempowerment for young Indigenous people.
“A lot of Aboriginal young people are hurt by the way that the general population in Australia sees them,” Stewart said.
Stewart, a Yuin woman, has worked with Aboriginal young people involved in the youth justice system since 2019 and is currently the co-manager of the Aboriginal healing program at Weave Youth and Community Services, in the Sydney suburb of Waterloo.
Many young mob she works with don’t even know what the Voice is or what a referendum is, she said. And that confusion can also compound the emotional and social distress.
“If you’re getting told every day that you are not valued, or not worth anything, and that’s how the general population sees you, and it’s also filtering into all your social media, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where that leads to,” Stewart said.
“And at the same time, there’s a big element of confusion. All this conversation is happening above and around, but they actually don’t even know what it is that’s going on.”
Stewart said accessible and trusted background information could mitigate the intensity of the feelings by providing young people with the means to orient themselves amidst the noise, and understand their own behaviours in response to external influences. But she said there was currently “a large disconnect” between the political conversation about the Voice and young mob in community.
“It’s up to us as older people, who have the knowledge and the capacity and the connections to engage in these conversations, to go back to our young fullas and say, ‘Here’s what it is, here’s what it means, here’s what it might mean for you’,” she said.
“Ultimately, it’s our young people and people on the ground in community who are the ones who we are trying to, you know, have a voice for.”
After Opposition leader Peter Dutton asserted in his speech over the Bill that the Voice would “re-racialise” Australian society by making Indigenous Australians “more equal” than non-Indigenous Australians, race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan appealed to political leaders and the media to avoid making race the focus of the public debate.
“The concern I have is when the debate degenerates into a more racialised discussion,” Tan said.
His comments followed the eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant reporting a 10 per cent increase in the proportion of complaints of online abuse, a figure a spokesperson said is expected to intensify as the referendum date approaches.
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