The head of the Human Rights Commission believes aspects of the Government's proposed overhaul of anti-discrimination laws may "go too far" and has suggested tweaking the plan in order to preserve the thrust of the "valuable reforms".
Commission president Gillian Triggs says the public debate over the changes has exposed some weaknesses in the draft legislation that should probably be changed.
"While some aspects of the bill arguably go too far, we should not overlook the overwhelming strengths of this long overdue reform or the benefits of harmonisation of the present confusing proliferation of federal discrimination laws," Ms Triggs wrote in a newspaper opinion piece.
She has suggested dropping plans to broaden the coverage of a provision which makes it unlawful to "offend or insult" based on certain characteristics.
"Understandably, calls for the Senate committee to delete this provision are loud and, indeed, it might be wise to amend the bill, so far as it applies to acts that offend or insult, if only to preserve the valuable reforms that the rest of the bill will provide," she said.
Ms Triggs says despite the shortcomings already identified, the proposed legislation is a "balanced package" that makes anti-discrimination laws easier to understand and comply with.
Australia's largest media organisations, including the ABC, Fairfax and News Limited, have made a joint submission to the Senate committee examining the legislation, arguing that such a provision would limit free political debate.
They say many media organisations publish or broadcast material which some members of the audience may find offensive, but that does not necessarily make it discriminatory.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the Government is open to making changes, which is why the plan was released for public input.
"We put out there what we thought was most worthy of consideration, but we put it out there for feedback and we'll consider the feedback," she told reporters in Canberra.
The Senate committee is due to begin public hearings on the proposal tomorrow, but there is no guarantee the plan will pass through Parliament.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says the Coalition has "deep concerns" about any additional restrictions on free speech.
"We are called the Liberal Party because in our DNA is support for free speech," he told reporters in Brisbane.
"And what we've seen from this government is a hectoring, bullying attempt to intimidate opponents, particularly the News Limited group.
"The last thing we need is anything that shuts down legitimate debate in this country."
Crossbench MP Tony Windsor has also expressed reservations about the proposed changes, adding that he has received a large number of emails about the issue.
"I'm not just going to let this... through without doing some real homework on it and at the moment, that's exactly what we're doing," he told ABC AM.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has said the changes are designed to simplify the definition of what is considered discriminatory, and how it should be dealt with.
Chief Justice concern
There have so far been almost 600 submissions to the Senate committee examining the issue.
The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, has written to the committee to express concern about aspects of the legislation, including the ongoing exemptions provided to religious organisations.
"I believe there is the potential for these exceptions to detract from the purpose of preventing discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, sexual orientation and same-sex relationship status," Ms Bryant wrote.
She has also raised concerns about shifting the burden of proof towards the defendant, saying the policy rationale that the defendant would be in the best position to know the reason for the discriminatory behaviour and have the best access to the most relevant evidence is "tenuous".
"There are processes by which relevant evidence can be elicited without disturbing the principle that a person making allegations, of discrimination or otherwise, bears the
burden of proving those to the requisite standard."
"This proposal represents a significant departure from the current approach of applying the full burden of proof to the complainant."
Ms Bryant says her submission has been written in consultation with the court's law reform committee, but they are her personal views and may not be shared by other members of the court.
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