Senator Dean Smith has called on the Opposition to allow a conscience vote on free speech as calls to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act gain momentum.

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The Western Australian Liberal, best known for being the party’s first openly gay politician, also criticised Labor members for staying silent on what he described as a “racist” campaign by its NSW branch.

Speaking at a Freedom of Speech symposium hosted by classical liberal think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), Senator Smith dismissed claims of “radicalism” over his push to repeal the Racial Discrimination Act.

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“We don’t need the government to legislate to make us tolerant,” he said.

“I challenge the Labor Party to give their parliamentarians a conscience vote on free speech.”

Senator Smith also criticised his own government after proposed amendments to Section 18C of the Act were axed in August following widespread public backlash.

The proposed amendments – involving the removal of the words “insult”, “offend” and “humiliate” – also face threats from within the federal government with Liberal MPs threatening to cross the floor.

Senator Smith said he accepted that the priorities of the Abbott Government had changed, but he disagreed with the move.

‘It criminalises the holding of an opinion and that is wrong’

“I’ll never be convinced that it was the right decision at the time,” he said.

Senator Smith has publicly supported Bob Day’s push to water down the bill. He co-sponsored the Family First Senator’s private member’s bill alongside Cory Bernardi, while Queensland senator Ian Macdonald and West Australian senator Chris Back have also supported the bill.

Senator Smith said that ground in the Senate was “starting to shift” in regards to repealing parts of the Act, despite confirming speculation that the government was trying to stop its Senators from voting for the bill.

He said that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said upper house members were free to vote how they felt on private member’s bills, but conceded that his leniency was “yet to be tested”.

“I suspect we would get seven or eight [Senators] after the budget,” he said.

Senator Smith described the bill as a “minimal proposal”, which would fix what he saw as the primary issue with the Act.

“It criminalises the holding of an opinion and that is wrong,” he said.

“… It doesn’t do anything to combat racism it merely serves to hide it, to conceal it. Racists and bigots should be free to air their ugly views, so they can be shown for what they are.”

‘It seems now that free speech is once again a battleground’

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson also stood by his calls to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act, stating that the argument against reform was “simply absurd”.

Speaking at the CIS symposium, Mr Wilson argued that recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks should have been a trigger for the government to revive the amendments.

“It remains a very serious disappointment that the federal government botched effort to reform this law last year,” he said.

“The federal government simply inadequately prepared the case for change.”

Mr Wilson also criticised government moves to crack down on hate speech, saying that criminalising it would be “as terrifying as Hizb ut-Tahrir themselves”.

He said such groups should be monitored rather than censored, as their views will remain constant.

“They are a group we should keep an eye on,” he said.

“Pushing them underground won’t help.”