Will multicultural Australians support the Voice? The success of the referendum may hinge on it

When Warren Mundine, one of the lead “no” campaigners of the Voice to parliament, suggested that migrants be recognised in the Constitution along with Indigenous Australians, it was criticised as a diversionary and potentially destabilising intervention.

It did, however, focus momentary attention on how Australia’s culturally diverse communities were being engaged on the Voice referendum – and whether they would support it.

These communities could be crucial to the success of a referendum, given their size and breadth. Just over half of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one migrant parent. And nearly a quarter of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

Mobilising support in culturally and religiously diverse communities

The Voice campaign must capture the support of a majority of electors in a majority of states. In the referendum, there will be three possible voting choices – yes, no or an informal vote. The yes vote effectively requires an absolute majority to succeed, while the no vote can depend on unconvinced or confused voters to boost its impact.

Although the informal vote was less than 1% in the 1999 republic referendum, it can be high in multicultural communities. For example, the electorate of Fowler in western Sydney, which has large Vietnamese and Chinese populations, had an informal vote of 10.5% in last year’s federal election.

Recognising how important the multicultural vote is, the “yes” campaign has already identified several broad coalitions whose support is critical.

First is the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), which announced its full support of the Voice at its annual conference in late 2022.

Its chair, former Victorian state MP Carlo Carli, has been using the media to push back at Mundine’s comments, saying there is no interest in ethnic community organisations for a multicultural Voice to parliament.

FECCA is a federation of state and regional councils, each of which comprises many individual ethnic organisations. As such, it neither controls nor completely reflects the opinions of the broad masses of unaffiliated ethnic voters.

However, in the case of the Voice, these bodies may well influence how voters think – this will be tested in coming months.

While FECCA is an important body, individual ethnic community organisations have much closer relationships with the electors who will vote in the referendum. And within these smaller groups, trust in government is sometimes lacking and support for progressive causes less assured. Many of the important conversations about the Voice will also need to be in people’s native languages.

The various Chinese communities offer a good example here. They are increasingly dominated by university-educated mainland China or Hong Kong migrants. And they’ve been badly hurt by the upsurge in anti-Chinese rhetoric and harassment over the past few years of the pandemic.

Many who supported the Coalition in the 2019 federal election deserted them last year, seeing the Morrison government as the epicentre of anti-Chinese hostility. Yet, Chinese voters have not always trusted the ALP, either.

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This very diverse community does not have a necessary attachment to the Voice. On the one hand, many Chinese migrants may have a shared experience of racism that helps shape their attitudes. But on the other hand, some may retain a suspicion and anxiety about Indigenous people, as well.

Another coalition that matters is religious-based. The heads of various religious congregations gathered last year to decide whether a consensus on the Voice would be possible. They soon reached agreement on supporting the referendum, finding in all faiths a moral, if not religious, imperative to endorse Indigenous aspirations for recognition.

However, some of these religious leaders also actively opposed the same-sex marriage plebiscite, while some religious groups were fervently against the government’s COVID vaccine drives.

How migrants’ views of racism have changed

Mundine argued that migrants rejected the idea Australia was deeply racist – a notion the “no” campaign will try to seize on.

However, my research into the political mobilisation of ethnic communities over many years has shown that immigrant communities have a more complex relationship with the politics of race.

Some communities, for example, have questioned the ideology of integration that was reintroduced by conservative governments in recent years in response to earlier multicultural movements of the 1970s to 1990s.

COVID also disproportionately affected migrant communities. In early 2022, it was revealed that deaths from COVID were three times higher among migrants than those born in Australia. For those born in the Middle East, death rates were 13 times higher.

Immigrant communities also suffered from high incidents of racism and serious economic stress.

Black Lives Matter rally in Brisbane in 2020.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

This caused trust in government to erode among the most badly affected groups – largely working class, non-English-speaking people, often born overseas.

And in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement ignited similar action in Australia. Although driven by Aboriginal activism, BLM rallies also attracted many Australians with backgrounds from Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and the Pacific, in particular.

These events may have heightened the awareness in immigrant communities of the prevalence of racism in Australia. They may also have enhanced empathy for Indigenous people’s struggles, and potentially, support for the Voice.

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Building trust in the Voice matters for everyone

So far, the Albanese government has called for citizens to support the concept of the Voice and trust parliament to get the details sorted. Yet, research shows trust in government has declined significantly over the past year or so after being very high early in the pandemic.

So, how best to engage with multicultural communities?

The central challenge is to detach support for the Voice from the broader idea of trust in government. To do this, the “yes” campaign has to galvanise grassroots engagement by demonstrating how the Voice is important not only to Indigenous Australians, but also to every citizen from every background.

To this end, some local government initiatives, such as that in Sydney’s inner west, have been running training courses that both educate people about the Voice and enable them to become advocates in their communities.

Some service delivery groups have also committed to the Voice, such as the large Settlement Services International network.

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This approach recognises that group dynamics supporting individuals to do the “right thing” can have far more impact than endorsements from distant elites. This was successfully used in Independent MP Dai Le’s campaign for parliament in the Fowler electorate in last year’s election.

Moreover, teams of advocates from diverse communities will also need to be mobilised to create narratives convincing voters of the need for a Voice. Otherwise, the trust deficit that has been so apparent in these communities may contribute to their turning away from the idea.

The “no” campaign is already aware that confusion and mistrust are useful weapons in their armoury. The “yes” campaign needs to recognise this danger and ensure multicultural communities understand how the Voice can combat wider issues of racism and discrimination to their common benefit.

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