Current Issue #482

When is a public apology not an apology?

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From Scott Morrison to embattled state MP Sam Duluk, when it comes to taking responsibility, some politicians and public figures find sorry to be the hardest word.

South Australian parliament has been roiling after Liberal MP Sam Duluk dropped in on the crossbench Christmas party last December and allegedly gave SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros a bum slap and sent inappropriate text messages, among other accusations.

While there’s a parliamentary enquiry making stately progress toward some sort of conclusion over the matter, Duluk has taken several actions in the wake of the event including resigning from committees and issuing statements on Twitter:

“I wish to publicly apologise to Ms Bonaros…”

OK, that’s an apology. He’s taking responsibility for his behaviour, please continue.

”…and anyone else who was offended by my actions at a Parliament House Christmas Party”

OK, sure. Again: “my actions”, taking ownership, very good…

“…I’m deeply sorry for any actions that have caused offence.”

If that last bit pricked your ears up, you’re not being paranoid. The language subtly shifted so he wasn’t speaking about “my offensive actions” but “any actions that have caused offence”.

If that seems like nitpicking over semantics then you’ve not been keeping track of the way that “sorry if anyone was offended” has become the political non-apology du jour.

Let’s be clear: all those varitions of ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ are not quite the same as offering an apology for doing something wrong. It’s a passive-aggressive response to someone asking for one.

It’s a way of making clear that the offence is entirely in the mind of the ostensibly offended and that the person doing the offending was actually being perfectly reasonable. It’s barely a step up from saying ‘I’m sorry that you’re evidently so thin-skinned that you can’t take a hilarious and deliciously witty joke/comment/slap on the bum because you’re an uptight prude’.

It’s not at all unique to conservative political types but they’ve made it an art form. Forgettable Nationals leader *checks notes* Michael McCormack did it last August when he told the media that people displaced by rising sea levels could just come to Australia and pick fruit, responding to the reasonable outcry with “if any insult was taken, I sincerely apologise.”

It harkened back to Peter Dutton shrugging “sorry if anyone was offended” after he was caught on camera making a joke about lazy Pacific Islanders having sea levels “lapping at [their] door” in 2016. He then insisted that the was the real victim here for being pilloried for making a “light-hearted comment” in a private conversation (in an official meeting, being covered by the media).

And, of course, Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently rolled it out for his statement regarding his being on holiday in Hawaii as the nightmare bushfire season claimed its first victims, insisting that “I deeply regret any offense caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bush fires by my taking leave with family at this time.”

Not for actually taking the holiday while the drought was biting and the fires had already started, you understand. He’s sorry if you were offended by it, maybe because you hate holidays or his children or something.

On its own it’s a small deal (although rarely for the person it’s being condescendingly deployed toward) but it’s part of a broader failure to take responsibility for behaviour which is poisoning public discourse – not least because someone in a media training unit is clearly telling politicians that under no circumstances must they ever admit to having been wrong.

This language has consequences. It’s why our governments can’t ever back down on mistakes, from action on climate change to repealing the demonstrably flawed process of Centrelink’s Robodebt to spending millions on reopening Christmas Island to house four people, two of whom were born in Australia.

“I’m sorry if my actions were offensive to you” is a way of ticking a box while sidestepping basic responsibility.

If that sounds unfair to any politicians reading: well, I’m sorry if you were offended.

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street

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Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).

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