Coalition MPs are secretly defying Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis by drafting an alternative proposal for changes to the race hate laws.
NSW backbencher David Coleman, who has a law degree, is understood to be drafting the alternative proposal. Supporting him is a rebel group of backbenchers intent on overturning the controversial law changes proposed by Mr Abbott and Senator Brandis. The draft policy – as it currently stands – weakens protections against racial vilification and would allow virtually any racist speech if it is in the course of a "public discussion".
Mr Coleman's view is understood to be supported by Coalition backbenchers including NSW MPs John Alexander, Nickolas Varvaris and Craig Kelly, Victorian MPs Sarah Henderson and Sharman Stone, and Queensland MP Teresa Gambaro.
Mr Alexander, who has not publicly declared his opposition to Senator Brandis, would not deny that he was working with Mr Coleman to draft an alternative proposal. Mr Coleman also declined to comment and would not deny that he was the lead author.\
Mr Kelly told Fairfax Media after the print deadline that he was not part of a "group" but did not deny he opposed Senator Brandis on the changes to the race hate laws.
Ms Gambaro, the member for Brisbane, who has also not publicly declared her opposition to Senator Brandis, has met with Mr Coleman and the rebel group but says she has not been involved in drafting alternative policy.
"Until you've experienced racism, you can't imagine what it's like," said Ms Gambaro when asked about her opposition to the government's changes.
"Growing up, I received racist taunts . . . when you're Italian, they call you a wog. I remember when I was made school prefect, people were saying it's not fair a wog being made prefect.
"We've come a long way since then but we need to have protections against race hate speech. There needs to be a balance."
The other MPs named did not return calls or messages.
Senator Brandis also faces powerful opposition from his cabinet colleagues. In a fierce argument in cabinet, Senator Brandis' position on the race hate laws was strongly opposed by Treasurer Joe Hockey and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Other Coalition MPs opposed to the government's proposal include NSW MP Craig Laundy and Victorian Jason Wood. But both said they had not worked on alternative legislation.
The backbenchers, many of whom represent highly multicultural electorates, are keenly aware that the proposed law changes are opposed by a powerful coalition of ethnic and religious groups. The issue has united leaders from Australia's indigenous, Chinese, Jewish, Armenian, Arab, Korean, Greek, Vietnamese and Sikh communities, all of them calling for the Abbott government's exposure draft to be scrapped. Another flashpoint is that the proposed changes appear to give free rein to Holocaust denial and other forms of anti-Semitism.
Some of the rebel backbenchers met during the most recent parliamentary sitting week in March to discuss their strategy for defeating Senator Brandis' proposed changes, which he released as an "exposure draft" for a month of community consultation.
Senator Brandis' proposal to loosen the race hate laws – which was inspired by a legal case against the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt – involves repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The current act, which Bolt breached with an article he wrote about fair-skinned Aborigines, makes it unlawful for someone to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'' another person or group on account of their race or ethnicity.
The Attorney-General wants to insert a new section into the act that removes the words ''offend, insult and humiliate'' and narrows the definition of ''intimidate'' to mean only fear of physical harm. It would also add the word ''vilify'' but define it to mean the incitement of third parties to hatred.
Mr Abbott argued the changes were designed to give the ''red light'' to bigotry and strengthen free speech protections in Australia but some Liberal MPs, human rights lawyers and ethnic groups were concerned about the narrowing of the protections and the broadening of the exemptions.
Ethnic and religious groups are completing their submissions to the government before the April 30 deadline.