For more than a century, successive governments have dedicated extensive resources to keeping so-called undesirables out of Australia.

In 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, part of what became known as the White Australia policy, was introduced to exclude non-white people from entering Australia. That policy was replaced by the 1958 Migration Act, which, while more open than the previous position, still provided a variety of clauses on which to exclude and discriminate.

One of the most arbitrary elements of this act is section 501, which allows the immigration minister to exclude people if he/she believes that “there is significant risk that if the applicant were to enter or remain in Australia they would engage in criminal conduct; or harass another person in Australia; or vilify a segment of the Australian community; or incite discord in the Australian community; or become involved in activities that are disruptive or bring harm to the Australian community or a segment of that community”. That gives scope for a lot of people to be excluded on very general grounds.

The government has blocked rapper Chris Brown from entering the country, supposedly because of his history of domestic violence. A number of individuals from the far right have also been blocked in recent years, most recently Troy Newman. Newman, leader of Operation Rescue, has worked full time for the last 20 years trying to restrict women’s rights to control their own bodies. He advocates the death penalty for doctors who provide abortion.

Others who have been excluded include Julian Blanc, the professional “pick up artist” who advocates (and practises) assaulting women, and Holocaust denier David Irving. Islamophobic Dutch MP Geert Wilders was excluded for several months in 2012 before finally being admitted in 2013. He is again trying to come to Australia and is again reportedly experiencing visa troubles.

Some people may be inclined to celebrate when a right wing bigoted scumbag or someone with a history of violence against women gets added to the exclusion list.

But the threat to people in Australia primarily comes from our own government, not a few “undesirables”. The government is cutting funding for domestic violence services and overseeing the torture and rape of refugees in detention centres. It is continuing the genocide against Aboriginal people. It is pushing single mothers into poverty.

This should tell us something about its motivations in visa cancellations: to redirect attention from its own atrocities, give itself a veneer of liberal civility, promote itself as protector of people and encourage the fallacy that only those on the margins advocate abhorrent ideas.

Further, by making section 501 acceptable, and indeed popular, the government can increase and widen its use for whatever purposes it wants.

Every year, hundreds of people have their visas revoked, usually because they have committed minor crimes (for which they have often served a custodial sentence). One woman who had lived in Australia since she was 4 years old had her visa cancelled at the age of 44 for drug possession. She has several children in Australia.

The government also has used these powers to keep out what it deems to be leftist “trouble makers”. In 2005, Scott Parkin, a peace and environmental activist from the Houston Global Awareness collective in Texas, had his six-month visa cancelled under section 501. Parkin was incarcerated for three days after he declined to attend a “voluntary” meeting with ASIO.

Parkin had been arrested only once in the US. A spokesperson for his former employer, Greenpeace, clarified his previous arrest, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “He once dressed as Tony the Tiger and ran around the Exxon Mobile headquarters in Texas, along with 20 other Tony the Tigers. He wasn’t charged with a violent crime”.

People are right to protest against individual bigots or individuals who are responsible for horrific acts. But we should not be running campaigns to encourage the government to use their powers to exclude people. We cannot beat bigotry by strengthening the hand of the state, which is the key perpetrator of violence in our society.