Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt has endorsed the Abbott government's sweeping changes to race hate laws but Liberal MPs have already flagged concerns about exemptions in the proposed laws that apply to public debate.
Labor rejects race-law changes
Labor has rejected proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act that would ban vilification and intimidation, but allow offence, insult and humiliation.
A day after defending the right of Australians to be ''bigots'', Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday outlined sweeping and controversial changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, with an exposure draft approved by the Coalition partyroom.
Bolt's endorsement is significant given his legal case in 2011 was the catalyst for Senator Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott to embark on making changes that will infuriate nearly every major religious and ethnic group in Australia.
''The government's proposals should permit us to ban what is truly wicked while leaving us free to punish the rest with the safest sanction of all - our free speech,'' Bolt told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
''I think there is no contradiction between being for free speech and against racism, and this proposal goes a long way to recognising that.
''I have always argued both against racism and for the freedom to denounce racism in all its forms, including the new tribalising of our country.''
The News Corp commentator said his only concern was about the potential ''for some creative judge to one day redefine 'vilify' in ways we cannot today imagine''.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in its current form, makes it unlawful for someone to do an act that is reasonably likely to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'' someone because of their race or ethnicity.
Senator Brandis wants to remove the words ''offend, insult and humiliate'' but to leave intimidate, which he said provoked fear. The proposed changes will be subject to at least six weeks of community consultation.
Senator Brandis has also proposed repealing section 18D of the Act, which provides exemptions that protect freedom of speech. These ensure that artistic works, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest are exempt, providing they are said or done reasonably and in good faith.
A new section will be inserted into the Act, which will preserve the existing protection against intimidation and create a new protection from racial vilification.
But an exemption would also be put in place under the changes that would ensure the protections did not apply to "words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter".
Senator Brandis said it will the first time that racial vilification is proscribed in Commonwealth legislation.
Coalition MPs flag concerns
Coalition MPs Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood flagged concerns about this carve out, contained in part four of the exposure draft, and suggested it was too broad an exemption.
It's understood Ms Henderson asked a series of detailed questions about the changes, while Mr Wood – a former policeman – suggested there could be too many "ways out" allowed for a defendant under the proposed changes.
Liberal MPs David Coleman and Craig Laundy, who represent electorates with a high proportion of multicultural constituents, have previously urged Senator Brandis to keep the legal ''safety net'' protecting racial minorities against hate speech.
One Coalition MP told Fairfax Media that Senator Brandis' proposed changes were well handled, but said the politics of the issue were increasingly difficult for the Coalition.
"This is turning into a mess, Labor now has six weeks to throw bombs and marginal seat holders are getting nervous,'' he said.
A second Liberal MP confirmed the only serious concerns raised in the party room meeting related to the exemptions in part four.
"Broadly, people were supportive of the process," the MP said.
The Abbott government's proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act come after months of speculation, during which time a coalition of ethnic and religious groups made it known that they ''vehemently opposed'' any weakening of current protections against race hate speech.
Labor legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus said on Tuesday that the changes marked a ''very substantial widening'' of exemptions and a "very substantial watering down of the protections that have served Australians very well to protect them against racist speech for almost 20 years".
"Both those requirements are being removed by what's proposed here and what that would mean, and I'll say it very directly, is that you could be telling bare-faced lies and know about telling bare-faced lies, you could be deliberately intending to hurl racial abuse under cover of a political discussion but that would not deprive you of the supposed free speech protection that's here provided,'' he said.
"You could drive a truck through this exception."
Bolt case 'won't happen again'
The influential right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, has also endorsed Senator Brandis' proposed changes to the race discrimination laws.
''Today's announcement is almost as good as a full repeal of section 18C of the Act,'' said Simon Breheny, director of the legal rights project at the IPA.
''While a full repeal of 18C would be preferable, the government's proposal goes 95 per cent of the way towards ensuring what happened to Andrew Bolt won't happen again,'' Mr Breheny said.
The Attorney-General and the Prime Minister have a close relationships with Bolt, and believe he was mistreated by the courts when he was found to have breached section 18C for an article he wrote about light-skinned Aborigines.
Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled ''that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by [Bolt's] newspaper articles''.
Indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt last week threatened to cross the floor to oppose the change. He said on Tuesday that he would consult with his community about the proposed changes.
"I certainly will be working with people in my electorate to see what their views and positions are,'' he said.
"I've always supported free speech because we need discussions around some very key and critical issues without feeling as though we can't raise them, if we don't raise them we don't effect change but there is also a limit in the way that you deal with free speech."
Jewish MP Josh Frydenberg is also understood to have expressed reservations about weakening the protections.
Representatives from the Aboriginal, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities have been visiting Parliament House for months and lobbying MPs from all parties to oppose the changes.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim said he could not recall ''any other issue on which there has been such unity of purpose and strength of feeling across such a diverse group of communities''.
Palmer undecided on proposal
It is not certain that the Attorney-General will get his proposed changes through the Senate, even when the new Senate convenes on July 1. The Greens and Labor oppose changing the laws, as does independent Senator Nick Xenophon. The success of Senator Brandis' legislation may hinge on the Palmer United Party senators.
Palmer United Party leader and Fairfax MP Clive Palmer said on Tuesday that he and his senators had yet to decide their view on the legislation.
''First of all we will determine what our position is,'' said Mr Palmer, whose party could have as many as four senators, controlling the balance of power when the new Senate convenes on July 1.
But Mr Palmer warned Senator Brandis should not expect easy or straightforward negotiations with the Palmer United Party over the race hate laws.
''We will be strategic about determining the right time to reveal our position,'' Mr Palmer said.
With Lisa Visentin, Dan Harrison, Lisa Cox