Attorney-General George Brandis has released the government's planned changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
25 Mar 2014 - 11:39 AM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2014 - 8:10 PM

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis insists it's not the role of government to protect against hurt feelings as he unveiled long-awaited changes to a controversial section of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The government plans to repeal Section 18C of the Act that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Instead it will insert a new section that outlaws racial vilification and preserves the existing protection against intimidation.

Watch: Brandis outlines planned changes to race laws, Karen Middleton reports

Senator Brandis on Tuesday released for community consultation an exposure draft of the changes which he says balance the objectives of protecting Australians from racist conduct and allowing free speech.

At the heart of the changes is the removal of "insult, offend and humiliate", which Senator Brandis said amounted to protections against "hurt feelings".

It was impossible to have a discussion on difficult issues without offending, insulting or even mocking someone with an alternate view, Senator Brandis said.

"It is not, in the government's view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others," he told reporters in Canberra.

Release of the draft amendments comes a day after Senator Brandis told parliament people had a right to be bigots.

Coalition MPs unanimously signed off on the changes during a joint partyroom meeting on Tuesday.

Several MPs, including Ken Wyatt - the first indigenous member of the lower house - last week expressed concerns about the government's plan to change the Act.

Section 18C was used to prosecute conservative commentator Andrew Bolt over a column he wrote about "fair-skinned people" of diverse ancestry choosing Aboriginal racial identity for the purposes of political and career clout.

Watch: Do Australians have the right to be bigots?

Senator Brandis was unable to cite another case captured by the section, but said there had been anecdotal evidence of other incidences from people working in the media.

"We all know that the chill effect on public discussion is one of the most insidious consequences of legislation that inhibits freedom of speech," he said.

Senator Brandis said the changes also addressed a "gaping hole" in the Act by making racial vilification unlawful.

He cited football codes and their anti-racism rules as an example of the best way to combat discrimination, rather than a "government on high, ex-cathedra, telling people what they're allowed to think or say".

Mr Bolt has endorsed the planned changes.

"The government's proposals should permit us to ban what is truly wicked while leaving us free to punish the rest with the safest sanction of all - our free speech," he told Fairfax Media.

Labor has criticised the exemptions to the new section, saying it would allow offensive utterances of the kind made by Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben and anti-semite Olga Scully.

"It ... would mean that there is very little that is going to be prohibited," shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told reporters.

The Human Rights Law Centre said the changes would significantly water down important laws that protect against the harm that flows from racial vilification.

"Putting the debate around racial offence and insults to one side, our biggest concern is the gaping hole introduced by the public discourse exemption," executive director Hugh de Kretser said.

Have your say on the draft changes here.