Why Scott Morrison is right to be wary of saying sorry

In the soft and fuzzy world of inspirational quotations, the word sorry is often imbued with mystical healing powers.

“An apology is the superglue of life! It can repair just about anything!!” a school teacher advises a troubled student in Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnson’s long-running comic strip For Better or Worse.

Another oft-cited aphorism, attributed to author Margaret Lee Runbeck: “Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.”

In the cutthroat world of politics, unfortunately, life is more complicated than such Facebook-friendly platitudes suggest.

Just ask Scott Morrison. Like political leaders before him, the Prime Minister has struggled with whether to say sorry when things go wrong, and if so, how and when to apologise.

During a visit to Lismore this week, Morrison offered devastated flood victims not just tax relief and emergency payments, but an apology as well.

“Every federal government would always be apologetic, and would always apologise that you’re never going to be able to provide enough support in these situations,” Morrison told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s why I do apologise.”

It was an eye-catching statement because Morrison does not throw around political apologies willy-nilly. He doesn’t rush into saying sorry and when his apologies do arrive, they can contain qualifications that dilute their impact or digressions that create new problems to solve.

In a February speech to Parliament in which Morrison repeatedly apologised for the Stolen Generations, he added that “sorry is not the hardest word to say, the hardest is I forgive you”. Many Indigenous leaders responded furiously, saying he should not tell traumatised people how to behave.

When Morrison apologised to Brittany Higgins in Parliament earlier that month, top lawyers accused him of undermining the upcoming trial of the man accused of raping her by denying his right to a presumption of innocence.

In his book Effective Apology, business expert John Kador says the key to saying sorry well is to “express remorse in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again”.

Harriet Lerner, the author of Why Won’t You Apologise?, agrees: “A good apology includes the words ‘I’m sorry’ without ‘ifs’ ‘buts’ or any manner of un-doings, obfuscations, and the like. Yet it’s so easy to slip into language that distances us from responsibility and that muddles exactly what we are apologising for.”

When he was attacked for taking a family holiday to Hawaii during the height of the 2019 summer bushfire season, Morrison said in a statement: “I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time.”

This language – apologising for “any offence caused” – is more distant and passive than Lerner recommends. So was Morrison’s claim this week that “every federal government would always be apologetic” for delays in flood assistance.

More damaging was a 2GB interview in which Morrison expressed regret for going to Hawaii before adding he believed Australians would understand why he took the trip.

“They know that, you know, I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room,” he said. The line is still used against him mercilessly by his political opponents as proof he is a hands-off leader.

Fast forward to July 2020, when Morrison doggedly rebuffed KIIS FM host Jase Hawkins’ pleas for him to say sorry for the slow pace of Australia’s vaccine rollout.

“I think Australians just want us to get it right,” Morrison said later in the day, explaining his refusal to apologise.

But it quickly became clear to Morrison and his advisers that he needed to express some remorse. His failure to apologise had become a political problem in itself, compounding the troubled vaccine rollout.

So Morrison changed his tune a day later.

“I’m certainly sorry we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we hoped for at the beginning of this year,” he said.

This time the apology was concise, direct and politically effective. The problems with the vaccine rollout remained, but the “barnacle” of Morrison’s refusal to say sorry had been cleared away.

It was far from irrational, however, for Morrison to be wary of expressing remorse.

Political scientist Richard Hanania notes it is conventional wisdom that politicians should apologise when entangled in controversy. But his research has found this isn’t the case. “[W]hen a prominent figure apologises for a controversial statement, the public is either unaffected or becomes more likely to desire that the individual be punished,” he concluded in a 2015 paper.

Similarly, Harvard professor Cass Sunstein found in a 2019 study that people tend to view public figures less favourably if they apologise for generating controversy than if they don’t. Sunstein’s theory is that political apologies regularly backfire because they act like confessions. “It makes wrongdoing more salient,” he explained in The New York Times. “It can lead people to think: ‘We thought he was a jerk; now we know he is. He admits it!’”

Morrison arguably experienced this phenomenon in February when he apologised to Higgins. Former Australian of the Year Grace Tame blasted it as a “performative, last-minute bandaid electioneering stunt”; young women interviewed by The Australian Financial Review dismissed it as “bullshit” and “too little too late”. Rather than softening their views of Morrison, his apology only hardened them.

Saying sorry may be the morally correct thing for politicians do. But, as Morrison has learnt, it is certainly not a panacea and can end up doing more harm than good if not executed expertly.

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