Why young people from multicultural groups could hold the key to the outcome of the Voice referendum

Why young people from multicultural groups could hold the key to the outcome of the Voice referendum
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2023

Simranjeet Kaur was busy educating multicultural communities about the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament when she realised the conversations she needed to have were closer to home

“I’m doing all this work outside, but if I look within the four walls of my house, I see it firsthand. There’s a gap in knowledge,” she told Hack.

Ms Kaur and her family moved to Australia from India more than 15 years ago.

“Before that, I don’t have any knowledge about Australia. But when I came here… then we learnt everything about Australia,” her father, Jagtar Singh, said.

An elderly man in a turban hugs his wife on a boat in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Jagtar Singh moved to Australia in 2006, and his wife Darshan Kaur arrived with their two kids shortly after.(Supplied)

When a Voice to Parliament was first proposed, Ms Kaur’s parents were completely in the dark about what the proposal meant, and why it was needed.

“When it comes up, we couldn’t understand what they [Yes advocates] are asking for, and how this will impact on us or other communities,” Ms Kaur’s mother, Darshan Kaur, said.

Ms Kaur realised really quickly that there weren’t many resources available in her native language of Punjabi.

Ms Kaur is a law student and paralegal who has been working to educate multicultural communities through the Radical Centre Reform Lab at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

So the responsibility of educating her parents fell on her.

“We’ve been having discussions around the table, you know, what is the Voice? What are your perspectives?”

The conversations have helped her parents form the view that they too would support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

“As a migrant we have to give priority to those people to whom that land belongs to. We have to respect them,” Mr Singh said.

While Ms Kaur is happy to have these conversations, she doesn’t think it’s fair that the burden of educating a community falls on young people like herself.

“I can do it with my parents, and I can do it with my aunts and uncles. But I can’t do it for the whole community. Because there is not enough access to materials, and English is most of our second language,” she says.

“I think there’s definitely not enough [information available] for multicultural communities.”

‘The assumed mainstream doesn’t exist anymore’

According to the last census, more than half of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was.

But public policy doesn’t reflect the country’s diversity, according to Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology in Sydney, Andrew Jakubowicz.

“Australia’s got a long history in public policy of preferring not to know about cultural and other diversities,” Professor Jakubowicz told Hack.

“Policy tends to be devised with a focus on an assumed mainstream, and Australia really hasn’t looked like that for a long time.”

He points to the pandemic as a classic example of people from migrant and multicultural communities being left behind in both the formation of policy and the communication of it.

He says the burden then falls on other members of the community – usually young people – to plug the information gap.

“Because they have knowledge, they have insights, which can only come from either being born here or growing up here, that their parents or grandparents could never have,” he explains.

“That’s why the interpersonal is so important. That’s why the the telling of the message, say from young people to older people, is so important.”

Countering misinformation

Interpersonal communication within families is also crucial to countering the effects of misinformation, Professor Jakubowicz says.

“If we’re getting our information from more distant sources, who we don’t necessarily trust, but we’re getting other sorts of information from closest sources who we are more trustworthy of, then we’ll tend to go with that.”

The same can apply to community leaders.

Jimmy Li is the president of the Victorian chapter of the Chinese Community Council of Australia.

His organisation came out in support of the Voice to Parliament last year.

He told Hack that the council has faced a backlash for its position in the last few weeks, a reflection of the misinformation that has been circulating within the community.

“The main [concern they] raise is whether this Voice will give Aboriginal people special treatment, or even some misinformation like later we will need to pay more tax just to cover the cost,” Mr Li explains.

“Emotions are really running high.”

He attributes the misinformation to “anonymous social media posts” and says too many people in the community don’t seek out accurate sources of information.

“Many people don’t read the history, they don’t listen to [First Nations] music or watch [First Nations] art. It’s easier to just read the social media.”

Mr Li has been door-knocking in his community, and says he’s been buoyed by the effects of having face-to-face conversations with people.

“When I look at the polling numbers, I feel a bit depressed. But I went to talk to people, and it brings me a bit more upbeat.”

Reaching new audiences

Professor Jakubowicz, who supports the Yes campaign, says both the Yes and No camps should be taking note of how important young people are in swaying the votes of their family members.

“Many of them have already had the experience of being interpreters for their parents or their grandparents… so they are trusted communicators.”

Some people are already taking note.

Like No campaigner, Steve Khouw.

He’s been helping run forums around Sydney as part of Fair Australia’s formal No campaign. Some are targeted at young people specifically, while others are for individual ethnic or religious groups.

Mr Khouw’s opposition to the Voice to Parliament has put him at odds with the Chinese Australian Forum, a group he’s been part of for a few years.

“It created division within the Chinese communities, within the elders and within even my own family.”

He says multicultural Australia has been ignored in the Voice conversation, and that community forums are a good opportunity to reach people who would otherwise not engage in the debates.

“I’m ashamed of it because no one’s telling them what it [the Voice referendum] is all about,” Mr Khouw told Hack.

He thinks the Voice isn’t a priority for many migrants.

“When you rank their life’s priorities, there are other things to worry about [like] cost of living, mortgages and running a business.”


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