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Racial discrimination changes dropped

The Prime Minister says the government won't proceed with changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as the government attempts to expand terrorism laws.

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After nearly six months of political pain, it took only 60 minutes for federal cabinet to kill the proposed changes to section 18C on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday morning his legislation had to be dropped. Cabinet had no idea the move was coming.

"As recently as Monday night, Senator Brandis had defended his legislation on television".

"As recently as Monday night, Senator Brandis had defended his legislation on television". Photo: Andrew Meares

After months of consulting community groups and more than 5000 submissions, the decision, in the end, was overwhelming and cabinet's decision was unanimous.

It was the first time the proposal had been discussed by the cabinet since March, when Senator Brandis was forced to water down his legislation to an exposure draft, which then opened the changes to public consultation.

As recently as Monday night, Senator Brandis had defended his legislation on television. But, less than 24 hours later, Senator Brandis opened the discussion at the cabinet table.

The Prime Minister's view was that the overwhelmingly negative feedback about the changes, combined with the proposed anti-terror laws, meant the government could no longer keep Muslims offside.

In the cabinet room, as one senior source put it, the Prime Minister allowed the Attorney-General the dignity of opening debate and then endorsed the decision to dump the legislation.

''It was seen to be swimming in a different direction to the terror legislation,'' a cabinet source said.

''The purpose of the exposure draft was to get community feedback and the feedback has been 'don't change it'. As part of combating terrorism, we want the moderate Muslim community to be onside. One of the sticking points has been 18C.''

Mr Abbott had been considering for weeks whether to ditch the plans once and for all and offered ''no defence'' of the draft legislation. Not a single minister argued in favour of proceeding with the election promise.

The pledge was made before the election and ethnic groups had not signalled they would marshal their opposition in such an aggressive and effective way.

The Attorney-General's opening salvo, ''everyone has a right to be a bigot you know'', had resonated badly in the electorate, especially in the migrant-rich outer suburban seats of Sydney and Melbourne.

As one source put it, ''it told every person who had ever been called a wog'' it was OK to be called such names.

''It only matters what people hear and they heard their government telling them it was OK to be a bigot,'' the source said.

A colleague said: ''That moment in the Senate was the moment we lost the argument. George Brandis is responsible for losing the politics of this.''

Before the Prime Minister had made his ''leadership call'' public, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, who had been prosecuted under the current laws, blogged about his disappointment.

''Too many lobby groups hate free speech,'' he wrote. ''And the reforms were badly sold.''

One Liberal noted: ''We're now in the worst of both worlds - we've defended the rights of bigots and now we're selling out the bigots, even though it was never about that and only about free speech.''

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