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Greens surge in polls

Support for the Greens is at a record high as support for the Abbott government eases.

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Voters have sent an unambiguous message to Tony Abbott and his Attorney General George Brandis: leave the race hate laws alone.

The latest Fairfax-Nielsen poll specifically asked voters if they believe it should it be lawful or unlawful to "offend, insult or humiliate" somebody based on their race.

The answer was a statistically conclusive 88 per cent - or nine out of 10 - in favour of the status quo - that is, that it should remain unlawful to discriminate.

Attorney General George Brandis: Has been pursuing the removal of the provisions in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act with the Prime Minister.

Attorney-General George Brandis: Has been pursuing the removal of the provisions in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act with the Prime Minister. Photo: Andrew Meares

The result is a slap in the face for Abbott and Brandis, who have been pursuing the removal of the provisions in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, on grounds of free speech.

Urged on by acerbic conservative commentator, Andrew Bolt and the ultra-libertarian Institute of Public Affairs the government has argued that nobody has a right not to be offended and that, in normal political and public discourse, unpleasant and potentially offensive arguments can be necessary.

Yet the argument has fallen flat, failing to convince voters that the change is justified by any social or legal dysfunction.

Cooking show

Among Greens and Labor voters who took part in the 1400-strong nationwide telephone survey, the proportion against watering down the protections is 92 per cent and even among Coalition voters 84 per cent favour the law as it stands.

The government wants to replace the heads of the law, to wit: "offend, insult or humiliate" with a new one making it illegal to "intimidate or vilify", although, intimidate is already in the act.

On this question, the government can take comfort in the fact nine out of 10 voters want statutory provisions making it unlawful to intimidate and vilify based on race, but it is likely respondents want these provisions in addition to,rather than instead of, existing clauses as the government has proposed.

And, critics say, the prohibition on intimidation is too narrow, encompassing only physical intimidation, when in practice there are many ways a vulnerable person could be literally intimidated.

With the debate at fever pitch last month, Senator Brandis bravely told the Senate that people had the right to be bigots.

The statement was technically correct, in that citizens are free to think whatever they want, but it was a political own-goal, making the government appear to be defending dissemination of hate-speech and racial disunity.

Asked if they agreed with the statement, six out of 10 or 59 per cent of respondents said "no" compared to 34 per cent who  said "yes".

Even among Coalition voters, the government has failed to carry its constituency with 50 per cent disagreeing and 42 per cent agreeing.