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Malcolm Turnbull has angrily rejected suggestions his government is watering down race-hate laws in favour of freedom of speech, as parliament marks Harmony Day.
Attorney-General George Brandis will bring to parliament later this week changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to replace the words "offend, insult and humiliate" with "harass and intimidate", making it harder to successfully make claims.
"We are strengthening the race-hate laws," Mr Turnbull told reporters.
"They are clearer and they clearly express the type of conduct that should be prohibited, not mere slights or the taking of offence or hurt feelings."
Senator Brandis said no other country prohibited offending, insulting or humiliating speech and the language change reflected the original intention of the laws brought in by Labor over two decades ago.
Labor leader Bill Shorten told parliament it was typical of the government to weaken protections against racism on Harmony Day - which celebrates racial tolerance and inclusion.
Last year, Mr Turnbull repeatedly said the government had no plans to change the law and it was not a priority, but he has been under pressure from within Liberal ranks and minor parties such as One Nation to act.
"This isn't about free speech, it's about Malcolm Turnbull appeasing his party," Mr Shorten said.
"How much more will Australia throw overboard to save this man's job? Labor will never support the right to be a bigot."
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Senator Brandis gave the game away when he said changing the offence to harassment was a stronger term.
Raising the legal bar would make it harder for people to complain against racist speech, he said.
"Every single ethnic community in Australia has been betrayed by this government," Mr Dreyfus told reporters.
Egyptian-born Labor MP Anne Aly told parliament she faced racism while she was growing up "and even in my life now".
"What exactly does the prime minister want people to be able to say that they cannot say now?" she asked Mr Turnbull.
In response, the prime minister said all Australians were opposed to racism in any form and it was offensive to suggest people who supported law reform were somehow racist.
Under the changes, the test to be applied in complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission will be the standard of a "reasonable member of the community".
The commission will also have greater powers to filter complaints which are deemed to be frivolous or without merit and those who are the subject of the complaint will get an early warning when a complaint is lodged.
Fewer than four per cent of complaints to the AHRC related to section 18C and fewer than four cases progressed to court each year.
At least four coalition MPs expressed misgivings about the wording changes, but will support the legislation in parliament.
The changes will need to run the gauntlet of the Senate later this week, where the government needs nine out of 11 crossbench votes to succeed.
Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon supports a change to the investigation processes used by the AHRC, but doubts a re-wording of Section 18C will get through parliament.
Greens senator Nick McKim said making changes to 18C was exactly what multicultural Australia had asked the prime minister not to do.
A Labor senator interjected to say that Senator Brandis should remove his orange Harmony Day ribbon from his jacket.
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