POLITICS

Malcolm Turnbull: 'We Are Defending The Race Hate Law By Making It Clearer'

18c fight moves to the senate as the Coalition backs changes.

21/03/2017 12:32 PM AEDT | Updated 22/03/2017 1:02 PM AEDT

CANBERRA -- Stronger, not weaker race hate laws. Clearer, fairer and greater protection for people attacked on the basis of race.

That's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's argument as he defies internal warnings about losing votes and his own previous repeated ruling out of a Liberal Party push to change the controversial section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), a law intended to protect Australians from race hate speech.

"We are strengthening the race hate laws," Turnbull insisted to reporters in Canberra.

Moments before - and after a long and divisive internal debate over free speech and any "right to be racist" - Government MPs and Senators in the Coalition party room voted to remove the words "offend, insult and humiliate" from the controversial section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and replace them with "harass" and "intimidate".

Even though Labor and legal experts that bar to catch racist speech will be set higher under the proposal, Turnbull has declared he is not approving a watering down of race protections.

"We are strengthening it because it's clearer, it will be a more effective protection against race/hate," he said.

Later in Question Time, the Prime Minister soon began shouting as he stood up for free speech.

"We are standing up for the freedom of speech that underpins our society, the greatest multicultural society in the world," Turnbull told parliament.

"Mr Speaker, Section 18C has lost its credibility. It lost it a long time ago.

"It needs to be reformed and we are putting it in language that does the job."

Section 18c of the RDA currently makes it illegal to insult, offend, humiliate and intimidate a person on the basis of their race.

Labor MP Anne MP - Australia's first female Muslim MP in the federal parliament - asked the Prime Minister several times,"What exactly does the Prime Minister want people to be able to say that they cannot say now?"

Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax
Labor MP Anne Aly is not liking what she is hearing as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks on 18C

Showing how deeply personal the issue is, Aly asked her questions as "someone who has been subjected to racism time and time again, as I was growing up and even in my life now."

Turnbull responded with "offense".

"My government - and I believe all Australians - are absolutely opposed to racism in any form," Turnbull said.

"The suggestion - the suggestion that those people who support a change to the wording of Section 18C are somehow or other racist is a deeply offensive one."

Changes are also proposed to the complaints handling process of the Human Rights Commission, a statutory body which has long been the subject of political attacks by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments.

The move has come despite warning from the Coalition's junior partner, the Nationals, that the issue has become a distraction for the government.

It is understood, the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce, and several other MPs, warned colleagues during the party room debate that the rate hate changes may cost the Coalition votes.

Joyce also continued his argument that his constituents are more concerned with issues such as jobs and the fight against the ice epidemic.

The Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, James McGrath was the first to confirm the decision as he declared, "freedom of speech is everything".

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

"The test to be applied will be the standard of reasonable member Australian community.

"There will also be changes made to the complaints handling process of the Human Rights Commission."

Supporting legislation will have a tough time passing parliament with Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team opposed to changing the wording of section 18c.

The Opposition says the Minister's claims of strengthening the RAD is "nonsense".

"This is a weakening of the law," Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told reporters in Canberra.

"It is a weakening of protection against racist hate speech.

"It is a moving of the line that we have drawn against racist hate speech for more than 20 years in the wrong direction and he's done it on Harmony Day."

Greens Leader Richard Di Natale has also condemned the new push on 18c by the government.

He's described it has as "attack on multicultural Australia" and a blatant attempt by the Prime Minister to "cuddle up to One Nation, the right-wing of his party and a narrow section of the media".

"It's shameful that the coalition believe it's ok for people to be humiliated, insulted and offended on the basis of their race," Di Natale said. "I ask Malcolm Turnbull, what it is that you want Australians to be able to say that they can't say already?"

"It's a national disgrace that this discussion is occurring on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Australia's Harmony Day - a day where we celebrate our cultural diversity.

The timetable for the supporting legislation is not known, but it is expected to enter the Senate first under the carriage of the Attorney-General, George Brandis.

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