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The great race debate

Do the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis go too far? Greens Senator Larissa Waters and Nationals MP Andrew Broad deliver their verdicts.

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Attorney-General George Brandis says cabinet made a collective decision to release only an exposure draft of proposed changes to race hate laws, but he has not denied he was forced by cabinet colleagues to water down his original proposal.

And Senator Brandis has played down suggestions that he was at loggerheads with Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs - who has criticised the government's proposed changes - and NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Victorian Multicultural Affairs Minister Matthew Guy, who disagreed with the senator's suggestion this week that people have the right to be bigoted.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis' moves to change the Racial Discrimination Act has drawn fire from state Liberals.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis' moves to change the Racial Discrimination Act has drawn fire from state Liberals. Photo: Andrew Meares

Mr O'Farrell said on Thursday that vilification on the grounds of race or religion was ''always wrong''.

In a strongly worded speech in State Parliament on Thursday, Mr Guy said the Victorian Coalition government would make a submission to the Commonwealth on the proposed changes, raising concerns about the repealing of section 18C.

''There isn't any place for bigotry in this country,'' Mr Guy said. ''I am concerned there may be some harmful and unintended impacts upon our community should the exposure draft, as it stands, be enacted.''

He said he was also ''genuinely concerned'' about the broad nature of the proposed exemptions, which includes public discussion.

He said the Victorian government was ''unambiguously opposed'' to any form of discrimination based on an individual's race, faith or gender. ''The government believes all Australians have an obligation to protect and encourage social cohesion.''

Fairfax Media revealed on Thursday that Senator Brandis was forced to soften his original proposal to loosen constraints on racist insults and hate speech in a lengthy cabinet meeting on Monday night.

The Attorney-General was obliged to settle for only a draft exposure bill on changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and contained a weakening of Senator Brandis' original proposals. This allowed the government to further modify the bill in response to community concerns.

In a damaging series of leaks for the government, one minister said the exposure draft was a compromise between conservative and moderate factions and added that ''George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid'', while a second minister said the original proposal had been ''much worse''.

In the Senate on Thursday, Senator Brandis said it was a ''matter of public record that the cabinet had a discussion about this matter on Monday''.

''Cabinet decisions … are collective decisions and the decision to release this exposure draft was the collective decision of cabinet.''

He played down suggestions from Labor senator Lisa Singh that he was at odds with Mr O'Farrell's stance on bigotry and she welcomed Professor Triggs' criticism of the government's proposed changes.

''I agree with them, and I particularly agree with what Mr O'Farrell said when he said … 'vilification on the grounds of race or religion is always wrong'.''

''The fact that there are a variety of views in the Human Rights Commission is itself relevant to the fact we are having a debate in the community about where the line should be drawn between the two goals that I suspect everyone in this chamber subscribes to,'' he said.

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