Warning over threats, harassment during referendum

Federal politicians and their staff have been urged to report abuse and harassment to police as the Indigenous voice referendum campaign gets under way.

Australian Federal Police officers have been advising MPs and senators to be alert to threats, and report them, in the lead-up to the October 14 poll.

Last year's federal election was the first time the AFP had launched a dedicated response to provide protection for political candidates ahead of a national vote.

Criminal charges can be laid in cases of disruption, harassment, intimidation, threatening behaviour and damage to property.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said some of the commentary around the referendum so far had been "unfortunate".

"People like (Indigenous Australians Minister) Linda Burney and (Labor senator) Pat Dodson, as well as members of my party and others, have shown incredible courage and indeed, patience," Mr Albanese told the Mamamia podcast on Friday.

He noted $10.5 million had been allocated in the budget to boost mental health support for First Nations peoples before, during and after the referendum.

'No' campaign leader and ex-Liberal candidate Warren Mundine this week accused the prime minister of unleashing "horrible racial abuse" in kicking off the referendum.

Mr Albanese rejected Mr Mundine's accusation as nonsense, telling ABC Radio: "I've called him nothing, at any time."

Anecdotally, politicians were reporting increasing levels of abuse of staff in their offices and directed at them personally, Australian National University professor Mark Kenny told AAP.

"Normalising such verbal abuse brings us closer to those individuals who might take things to the next level with physical threats and actions," he said.

The voice referendum, set in an era of "social media licensing all kinds of uninhibited exchange", had brought forward heated differences.

"Politicians have taken clear positions, opening them up to strong support and strong opposition," Prof Kenny said.

"There has been a lamentable lack of moral, social and civic leadership shown by those politicians opposed to the voice but unwilling to call out racist vituperation."

He said it was "staggering" no strongly conservative elder statesman had roundly condemned incivility, pointing to US politician John McCain’s famous rejection of false claims about president Barack Obama being a secret Muslim, not American-born, and a communist.

"McCain had every reason to capitalise on such irresponsible hyperbole and hate-speech but chose to speak up for his opponent, and therefore in favour of the system of politics itself. Where is that figure in Australia?"

Meanwhile, senior intelligence officials, police and bureaucrats are set to meet regularly during the referendum campaign.

The electoral integrity assurance task force will provide information and advice to electoral commissioner Tom Rogers on issues including disinformation, foreign interference and cyber incidents.

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