“There was a mistake made.” (Immigration Minister Peter Dutton passes judgement on whether approximately 80,000 Australian citizens — of Lebanese Muslim background — deserve to be here.)

It’s best to always assume conscious intent behind politicians’ choice of language. That’s the lens to apply in considering Dutton’s open race-baiting. There’s a big question of political morality involved, but we should also understand the amoral political context.

Dutton is emerging as the Abbott successor on the hard right of the Liberal Party. He shares Abbott’s knack for reducing complex issues to nuggets of media gold, albeit in more words and with less subtlety. His ramping-up of anti-immigration rhetoric is obviously responsive to the global trend of xenophobia. In simple terms, this is his play.

The media has mostly focused on the “gotcha” moment of watching Malcolm Turnbull squirm. He can’t condemn Dutton’s comments without risking his leadership. But we all know that. Turnbull-baiting is becoming like the degrading end of a bullfight.

The real questions relate to the legitimacy of Dutton’s language: whether they fall within or outside the bounds of appropriate speech in today’s Australia; and whether a Minister of the Crown has any higher responsibility for social cohesion than the rest of us. A pointed question that, since Dutton was in conversation with Andrew Bolt when he started down this path.

[They only come out at night: meet the deplorables, weirdos and ‘outsiders’ of Sky News after dark]

Dutton has made two statements about the migration of Lebanese Muslims to Australia in the 1970s. On Bolt’s program, with considerable prompting from his host, Dutton openly condemned the policies of Malcolm Fraser in allowing “particular cohorts, particular nationalities” into the country. The context was one of Bolt’s current pet topics, Sudanese immigrants allegedly involved in criminal gang activity in Melbourne, but Dutton took the cue to point at earlier waves of migration. It wasn’t clear who he meant, but the two biggest groups who arrived during Fraser’s term were from Vietnam and Lebanon.

Dutton ended the speculation a few days later in Parliament. Pressed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to name the people he was referring to on Bolt’s program, Dutton said:

“The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese-Muslim background.”

Now that Dutton has had his “they’re rapists” moment, not off the cuff, but carefully considered and backed by data, we need to consider where it leaves us.  Because we should be really clear here: this changes things.

Did Dutton break the law? In terms of the Racial Discrimination Act (yes, 18C, I’m going there!), his statements in combination cannot but humiliate and intimidate Australians of Lebanese-Muslim background. He has singled them out on racial/ethnic grounds.

Dutton’s statement in Parliament is privileged, meaning he is immune from legal claims in respect of it. However, there’s an open argument as to whether it’s available to provide context to what he said on Bolt. He was, after all, clearly pointing the finger at some specific ethnic group, saying they should never have been let in. We now know who he meant.

As the few of us who care about 18C know, the real issue is always 18D. Can Dutton get its protection if someone has a crack at him? Dutton would be playing the Bolt defence: that his comments either were made in the course of a discussion held for a genuine purpose in the public interest, or were an expression of his genuine belief on a matter of public interest. Assuming he genuinely believes that Lebanese Muslims should’ve been kept out of Australia, he’d satisfy the test.

He’d also have to say that his conduct was reasonable and in good faith. That’s where Bolt lost, and it’s an interesting challenge here, too. It’s true that 22 Australians from Lebanese Muslim family backgrounds have been charged (not convicted) with terrorism offences, and that that is statistically disproportionate.  However, can the conscious misuse of statistics qualify as bad faith?

[Dutton dressed as spam: how Immigration tries to hoodwink us on refugees]

A young Aboriginal person in Western Australia is something like 56 times more likely to be incarcerated than anyone else. Indigenous people throughout Australia are over-represented in the criminal justice system by many multiples. As statistical outliers go, it’s a monster. Applying Dutton-like logic, there’s a single reason for it: indigenous people are massively more prone to criminal behaviour than the rest of the population.

Another example one might point to is the under-representation of every single ethnic and racial minority, along with women, LGBTIQA people — and anyone else who isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon straight male — in Peter Dutton’s own party and government. Should we have not let their ancestors in because their descendants have been a civic disappointment?

Stupid, yeah, but that’s the point about dumb statistics: they tell us everything and nothing. Dutton knows that (assuming he isn’t as dumb as his statistics). It might be argued, therefore, that by backing his argument for race-based exclusion with meaningless data, he’s exemplifying unreasonableness and bad faith. Just saying.

The bigger question however is not Dutton’s legal but his moral culpability. Are we OK with a leader of civil debate in our country openly advocating race-based policy?

I’m just being honest, says Dutton. Just pointing to the facts. In this, he has the unwise backing of the Prime Minister. Extremely unwise, because we’re now on a very slippery slope.

The last time Australian political leaders felt comfortably able to make openly racist statements was when the White Australia Policy was still a thing. Up to the 1960s, it was acceptable for a government minister to extol the virtues of the “right” kind of people and warn against the dangers of letting the other types in.  Since that ended with the civil rights movement and Australia’s turn towards a progressive social contract in the 1970s, the major parties have observed a strong convention that the obvious benefits of a multi-ethnic immigration program should not be undermined by divisive commentary from politicians pointing fingers at specific groups in the community.

It’s one thing for a Cory Bernardi or George Christensen to pursue their backbench crusades against whichever minorities scare them the most, or for the latent minority nativism in Australian society to find expression through One Nation and its like. It’s entirely another for the government, through a cabinet minister, to legitimise the theory that an entire group of people can be held to blame for the anti-social or criminal actions of a few of their “kind”.

What Dutton has done is the worst thing a minister can ever do: use the authority of his office and the platform it allows him, to seek to harm the social cohesion of his own country. Whether or not he should have been free to say what he said, he absolutely should not have said it.