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Racial discrimination changes dropped

The Prime Minister says the government won't proceed with changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as the government attempts to expand terrorism laws.

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Australians will no longer be afforded the ''right to be a bigot'' after a stunning backdown by the Abbott government from its crusade to water down and remake the Racial Discrimination Act.

Besieged by opposition from ethnic leaders, the wider public and his own party, Attorney-General George Brandis admitted defeat during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, and faced no opposition from colleagues.

A government source said the decision was made by Mr Abbott who told Senator Brandis on Tuesday morning to pull the plug on his stalled bid to remake the race hate laws.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis in Canberra on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis in Canberra on Tuesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Mr Abbott and Senator Brandis revealed the backflip during a press conference to announce a boosting of Australia's footing against terrorism. Mr Abbott said it was a ''leadership call''.

''I want the communities of the country to be our friend not our critic,'' he said. ''I want to work with the communities of our country as team Australia.

''Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position.''

A Liberal Party source close to the process to rewrite 18C of the act said: ''This was always Tony Abbott's promise to Andrew Bolt''.

Bolt, a News Corp columnist, was briefed on the backdown at least an hour before the press conference, and blogged his disappointment before the announcement.

On Wednesday, Mr Abbott confirmed on ABC radio that he had personally informed Bolt about the backdown.

The Coalition had promised to repeal 18C before last year's election after Bolt was prosecuted over a comment piece he wrote on white-skinned Aborigines.

The Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people'' because of their race or ethnicity.

In March, Senator Brandis pushed ahead with plans to water down the act, releasing an exposure draft for public comment and famously proclaiming that people had the ''right to be a bigot''.

The move was met with stiff opposition from ethnic groups, Liberal MPs in marginal seats with large immigrant populations and was derided by the legal fraternity.

In a report to the NSW government, Arthur Moses, SC, wrote: ''With respect to the Attorney-General for Australia, his statement is misconceived and plainly wrong. On no rational basis can it be asserted that Australians have a 'right to be bigots'.''

Matt Kean, the NSW Liberal spokesman for communities, welcomed the news.

''This is a victory for commonsense,'' he said. ''Our laws must send the strongest possible message that racism and bigotry have no place in Australia.''

Craig Laundy, a Liberal MP who faced stiff opposition in his multicultural Sydney electorate of Reid, said the reversal was a win for ''party process''.

The free market Institute of Public Affairs, which had lobbied for the changes, reacted with venom, accusing Mr Abbott of breaking a promise.

''The Coalition's failure to fulfil its promise to restore free speech in Australia by repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is incredibly disappointing,'' said IPA executive director John Roskam.

Labor legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus said Mr Abbott had used the announcement of a boost in funding to counter-terrorism agencies ''as cover to dump deeply unpopular changes to the Racial Discrimination Act''.

''This was always a divisive and destructive repeal of a section that has served Australia very well for 20 years,'' he said.

''As recently as Monday night the AG was trumpeting the need to repeal section 18C. Clearly … he has been rolled by cabinet. It is deeply humiliating for him.''

Last week, Fairfax media revealed the plan had been rejected by a marked majority of respondents to a review of the exposure draft sent out by Senator Brandis.

More than 76 per cent of 4100 submissions were opposed to the proposal, according to documents obtained under freedom of information laws.