• Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis address the media. (AAP)
The Coalition will attempt to change the wording of the Racial Discrimination Act so it is no longer illegal to "insult" or "offend" someone on the basis of their race.
Myles Morgan, AAP
21 Mar - 10:32 AM  UPDATED 21 Mar - 1:05 PM

The Coalition partyroom has agreed to attempt reforms to Australia's 22-year-old racial discrimination laws, according to a Queensland LNP senator. 

Senator James McGrath appeared to confirm speculation that the Turnbull Government will change the wording of the controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which currently makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race. 

The government will try to replace the words "insult", " "humilitate" and "offend" with the word "harass", while the word "intimidate" will remain. 

The amendment would also introduce the legal test of whether the average "reasonable" Australian would consider the speech harassing or intimidating. 

"Freedom of speech is everything. From this deep old well comes our right to speak. To gather. To join or not join. To pray. To not pray. To think, to write and to believe," Mr McGrath wrote on Facebook. 

"The proposed changes to 18C get the balance right by removing the words offend, insult and humiliate and changing to harass and intimidate."

The changes will be met with stiff opposition from Labor and the Greens.

The Coalition will need crossbench support in the Senate to pass the amendment. While crossbenchers Derryn Hinch, Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson will likely support the changes, Nick Xenophon's key bloc of three senators have inticated they will vote no and tip the balance against the reform. 

Labor politicians have challenged the Coalition to reveal what language they want to publicly allow that isn't already lawful under the Racial Discrimination Act.

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"Aboriginal people understand what discrimination means. We have been subject to it for a very long time," Indigenous Labor MP Linda Burney said.

"I demand that those people that want to water down 18c come out here, face the media, face the Australian people and say what is it that you can't say today that you will be able to say if you water down 18c."

"Seems to me a very sad day in Australian democracy when what people say, they want to say in a hateful way," Indigenous Labor Senator Pat Dodson said.

"To hurt people, and to do that on the basis of their race or their religion or their beliefs, that's a very sad thing."

But the Turnbull Government said the need for change was obvious.

"We want to make sure we've got a tougher and fairer law, a law that actually works for people as opposed to the existing law which isn't working quite clearly," Trade Minister Steve Ciobo said before entering the Coalition party room.

It comes a day after the launch of the 2017 Multicultural Statement:

As well as the changes to the Act, Federal cabinet is understood to have approved new rules governing the way the Australian Human Rights Commission deals with complaints.

A coalition party room meeting, which began at 9.30am AEDT on Tuesday, is considering the proposal from cabinet, as well as the findings of a parliamentary committee which failed to find a consensus on any specific change to the law but accepted the complaints system wasn't working properly.

The inquiry report called for the AHRC to more rigorously assess complaints, a move welcomed by commission president Gillian Triggs who believes the threshold for complaints is too low.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said ordinary Australians who had seen their wages cut or stagnate and seen cuts to family tax benefits would be wondering how the government was so out of touch.

"We've got a law that is working well to protect people from racial hate speech - why don't we just leave it alone and actually focus on what makes a difference to people's lives?" Ms Plibersek told reporters in Canberra ahead of a caucus meeting.

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Labor MP Madeline King described the government as "masters of timing, giving the gift of irony" on Harmony Day, which is being celebrated internationally to promote cultural, racial and religious respect.

Less than four per cent of complaints to the AHRC related to section 18C and fewer than four cases progressed to court each year.

Cabinet minister Mathias Cormann said any changes would ensure the relevant laws were effective, workable and had broad community support.

Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi claimed the death of cartoonist Bill Leak had prompted the government to act.

"Why is it that we had to have someone sacrificed at the altar of political correctness to prompt a government to do something worthwhile," he asked.

The changes will need to run the gauntlet of the Senate, where the government will need nine out of 11 crossbench votes to succeed.

Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon supported a change to the investigation processes used by the AHRC but isn't convinced the Act needs to be changed.

"Right now we will work constructively with the government to change the processes involving 18c but we're not convinced of the need to change the wording of 18c," he said.

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