The problem with hyperbole is that it distorts not only political debate but also historical understanding. In Australian national politics, exaggeration is rife.

Take Greens’ senator Nick McKim, who represents Tasmania. Interviewed by Samantha Maiden on March 22, McKim asserted that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was the em­bodi­ment of “Fascism 101”. He said Dutton was “exhibiting tendencies that we know through history you will see are associated with fascism throughout the world”.

McKim ended his diatribe with the refrain “absolutely”. The impression given was that he knew, through a reading of history, that Dutton was on the fascist spectrum that began with Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s and continued through Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement in Germany until its demise at the end of World War II in 1945.

In view of the importance of McKim’s allegation, I emailed him to ask what books or articles he had read on European history with respect to fascism and Nazism that would lead to the conclusion that Dutton was a fascist. I also asked whether McKim used the term fascist to refer to someone with whom he disagreed and whom he did not like. It was a serious question that deserved a considered response.

This is what McKim had to say: “I don’t need to be a zoologist to know when I’ve trodden in dog poo. As a politician and human rights advocate, my view is that if he (Dutton) talks like a fascist and acts like a fascist then he is a fascist, and should be called out as such.” He did not state precisely how Dutton (allegedly) talked and acted like a fascist. Since the senator likes using university terminology to describe introductory courses, it’s appropriate to comment that his response to my query would have failed History 101 in any reputable institution.

If McKim had any understanding of Europe in the 20th century he would know that Mussolini and Hitler set up totalitarian regimes in their respective nations and quashed freedom of political action and expression. Both regimes oversaw the incarceration and murder of political opponents. If McKim had lived under fascism and had equated Mussolini or Hitler with “dog poo” he would have been imprisoned within hours and probably executed. So McKim is free to describe Dutton as a fascist only because the democratic govern­ment of which Dutton is a senior member does not imprison or kill its vocal opponents.

In this sense, McKim’s use of the term fascist to describe Dutton is intellectually dishonest, if not cowardly, in that deep down he knows the Coalition government in Australia does not act like a fascist or Nazi regime. Alternatively, he is a total ignora­mus when it comes to Europe in the past century.

Nick Dyrenfurth, a man of the left who heads the John Curtin Research Centre, is no Dutton supporter. But Dyrenfurth objected to the Greens senator’s hyperbole, tweeting that McKim “doesn’t understand what fascism is … fascists murdered and ran my family out of Europe; this is a grotesque abuse of history”.

Dyrenfurth’s specific reference was to Hitler’s attempted genocide of European Jews. The broader point was that the fascist/Nazi regime possessed an all-embracing ideology that was imple­mented and controlled by terror, including the use of secret police. It’s insulting to the memory of the victims of such regimes for McKim to imply that he lives today in a comparable society in downtown Hobart.

In Fascists (CUP, 2004), Michael Mann wrote: “As a word in usage today, it appears largely as the exclamation ‘Fascist!’ — a term of imprecise abuse hurled at people we do not like.” McKim does not like Dutton, but this does not make Dutton a fascist in any meaningful sense of the term.

McKim’s essential criticism of Dutton turns on his advocacy of border protection and administration of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. McKim bypasses the fact those people detained in offshore centres were put there by the previous Labor government, which enjoyed the support of the Greens.

When McKim looks at Dutton he sees not only a Mussolini-Hitler composite but also the rebirth of the White Australia policy, which prevailed from the formation of the commonwealth in 1901 until it was effectively dismantled by Harold Holt’s Coalition government in 1967.

On March 19, McKim tweeted: “The yearning for apartheid and the White Australia policy still exists inside the Liberal Party in Australia today and it is championed by people like Peter Dutton.” This is just delusional. As Im­migration Minister, Dutton pre­sides over a population intake that is ethnically diverse. Also, he has implemented the special intake of more than 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq.

McKim flew into a rage because Dutton said his department would consider applications for refugee entry from white South African farmers who were being attacked and murdered. The fact is there is little difference between Australia accepting a special intake from the Middle East or South Africa.

There is no doubt that McKim feels deeply about refugees and the plight of the few remaining asylum-seekers in offshore detention. It’s just the road to good policy lies in rational debate.

For more than a half-century, White Australia was a reality. The policy changed following considered advocacy in publications such as Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? (MUP, 1962), edited by Kenneth Rivett. The likes of Rivett argued their case with conviction supported by evidence. McKim’s anger-fuelled hyperbole directed at Dutton is about as compelling as canine droppings.