Racist bigots would get such broad exemption under changes proposed by the Abbott Government that the Human Rights Commission cannot see how they could ever be prosecuted.
Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday revealed plans to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" a person on racial or ethnic grounds.
The Government proposes to make it unlawful to vilify or intimidate because of the "race, colour or national or ethnic origin" of a person.
The proposed changes, which were released for consultation, would define vilify as inciting hatred against a person or group of people.
Intimidate would be defined as "to cause fear of physical harm".
But an exemption would apply to opinions "communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter".
Senator Brandis said the changes would be Australia's "strongest protections against racism" while allowing freedom of speech.
"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 said.
The Federal Opposition, which opposes any change to the Act, said the coalition proposal significantly diminished protections against racial vilification by narrowing definitions and widening exemptions.
In question time, Labor accused Tony Abbott of intending to allow people to be racially insulted without recourse.
The Prime Minister responded: "What we want to do is to maintain the red light for bigotry . . . but we want to remove the amber light for free speech."
Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said the changes appeared to reduce the level of protection.