Caught in the middle: Senator George Brandis is wedged between different sectors of the Liberal Party over his promise to dilute section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
A political fight is brewing between Attorney-General George Brandis and the Institute of Public Affairs.
Senator Brandis has angered the IPA and other powerful Liberal Party allies, who believe the Attorney-General is using tricky language to dilute his promise to repeal a controversial section of the race discrimination laws.
The Attorney-General has also been lobbied internally by marginal seat MPs representing multicultural electorates worried about losing protections against hate speech.
Free speech advocates say they have detected a change in Senator Brandis' tone recently, and they believe he has been persuaded by religious, ethnic and indigenous leaders, who have been lobbying against changing the race discrimination laws.
The dispute is likely to get worse, especially if Senator Brandis introduces, as some expect, a new criminal offence of racial vilification. IPA executive director John Roskam said he would rather there were no changes to the law than a new criminal ban on hate speech. He also said it had ''got back to me'' that Senator Brandis had been criticising the IPA in private conversations.
On ABC1's Q&A program on Monday, Senator Brandis said the Abbott government was determined to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act ''in its current form''. It is that phrase which angers the IPA.
''That was not the tone and intention of what Senator Brandis expressed before the election,'' Mr Roskam said. He said Senator Brandis had led him to believe he would repeal section 18C entirely. Senator Brandis condemned the law - which makes it unlawful to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'' someone because of their race or ethnicity - when columnist Andrew Bolt breached it for an article he wrote about ''white'' Aborigines.
Mr Roskam cites a speech Senator Brandis gave in July 2012 to the Australian Liberal Students' Federation, where he said: ''If we win the next election … one of my first priorities will be to remove from the Racial Discrimination Act the provisions under which Andrew Bolt was dragged before the courts''.
''After a spirited campaign from some community groups, it seems the Attorney-General has been having second thoughts,'' Mr Roskam said.
Senator Brandis is now wedged between the Liberal Party's natural allies on the right and a powerful coalition of ethnic groups and backbench MPs. Leaders from Australia's Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Greek, Armenian, Lebanese, Vietnamese and indigenous populations have united against abolishing or weakening the race hate laws.
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''.
Senator Brandis is also facing pressure from Liberal backbenchers in marginal seats. He met last week with NSW MPs Craig Laundy and David Coleman, who represent multicultural electorates and want Senator Brandis to keep the legal ''safety net'' protecting racial minorities against hate speech.
Senator Brandis did not reply to Fairfax Media's request for comment before deadline.