How Many Ways Can We Say ‘Sorry’ Without Consequence?: Scott Morrison refines the art of non-apologising

For weeks now with the escalation of the COVID crisis, Scott Morrison has refused to say ‘sorry’ for his government’s handling of the slow vaccine roll-out. Australia is currently near the bottom of the OECD table, 37th out of 38 countries on a per capita basis. Outside the OECD, even Global South countries led by contra-vaccine populists such as Brazil and Mexico are ahead of Australia. Surely this is because they are high-population countries. But, no, again, that is on a per capita basis. The main reasons seem to be poor anticipation of supply needs, inconsistent governance, and mixed messaging. Given Australia’s comparative wealth, positive health system and strong public-service capacity, this all adds up to a failure of the Australian government. It has meant that more people have died than should have done.

However, for months, even after substantial and direct pressure from journalists, Morrison has stood his ground against those who suggested he should express remorseful responsibility. Recently, an FM radio host in Melbourne pushed him in a series of direct questions: ‘Can you honestly say to me that the government has taken accountability? …Like, I have never heard the word “sorry”…“Guys, you know what, sorry, we did screw it up, but we are getting it right now”’.

The radio host was persistent. For uncomfortable minutes Morrison politicianed down and refused to use the ‘s’ word. Instead, he kept saying that his government was focused on ‘fixing the problems’. Then it finally came in a press conference a day later—one sentence amid many: ‘I’m certainly sorry we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we hoped for at the beginning of this year’. Even though he was only saying sorry for being over-optimistic, he immediately moved to undercut even this passing apology. ‘Of course, I am [sorry]’, he said, ‘But what’s important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around’. Saying sorry is not important.

Different ways to say sorry without consequence

Though he may be reluctant to say sorry, Morrison has apologised occasionally in the past. The problem is that across his period in office he has demonstrated a number of forms of saying sorry that are in effect non-apologies. It should be said that he is not alone in this skill. This way of operating seems to have become part of contemporary political culture, exacerbated as public communications have become increasingly abstracted from the everyday embodied responsiveness of more direct and personal relations. In more direct circumstances, a non-apologiser tends to be taken to task for these kinds of tactics. However, Morrison, like other politicians, has only his public-relations advisers to tell him if his apologies are simulacra. And those advisers are no longer interested in such things or indeed capable of making this sort of assessment.

The phenomenon has many expressions. The first form of saying sorry without actually apologising is the ‘regretful sorry’. This one is often real and heartfelt: ‘I am sorry for your loss’; ‘I am deeply sorry for your situation’. It is usually intimate and direct. The problem with this form is not the regret in itself. Expressed meaningfully and with integrated connection to others, it is not an apology, and nor should it be. The problem arises as players in the abstracted contemporary game of politics-at-a-distance instrumentalise that form in order to appear as if they are part of a solidaristic community. This form of saying sorry thus shades into the other forms of non-apology.

The second kind is the ‘sorry, … but’ manoeuvre. One of this cluster of expressions can be called ‘semi-apologising with blame transfer’. It takes the form of using the word ‘sorry’ but then finding a way of shifting or attributing the blame to someone else. It has unfortunately become a common ploy for ‘Teflon’ politicians, the name coined in the 1980s for Ronald Reagan.

The third form is the ‘sorry for your response’ constellation. This two-step dance has many variations, but its core involves apologising for the emotional effect of your actions on someone else, not for the actions themselves: ‘I am sorry that you feel that way’. We know this form in intimate relations under stress—and it is often called out in that situation—but it has now become a preferred modus operandi of public-sphere non-apologisers.

The fourth form is the ‘passive-evasive’ sorry. The task here is to speak earnestly and passively in the past tense, using phrases that never take direct responsibility: ‘mistakes were made’, ‘challenges were faced’ and ‘yes, it could have been done differently’. When delivering such an apology, never use the word ‘I’ or suggest that you or your team could have done any more.

The fifth form is the most complex one, and this is where we should have the most questions. On the one hand, it is the important and symbolic ‘big sorry’—apologising for social and systematic wrongs in the past. It can make a difference, but on the other hand it can also be dangerous, empty, inconsequential or questionable. It is hard to know what it means that British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology for British inaction during the 1840s Irish potato famine was written by others and finalised without the PM’s approval. Bizarrely, it was delivered by actor Gabriel Byrne because Blair could not attend the event. A number of Australian politicians—Kevin Rudd is the most recent—have apologised for past wrongs against Aboriginal people, but little has changed because of those apologies.

One of the most questionable variations on the big sorry can be called the ‘grand apology without intended recourse’. It is expressed in many ways, with the most prevalent being the ‘We’re sorry, but [sotte voce, only audible to your colleagues] the problem is so complex that we will only be able to make a few symbolic changes’ cluster. It happens when a political leader symbolically apologises for something terrible done in the past by a community they now represent: genocide, structural violence, patterned discrimination and so on, and then does (or says they can do) little about it.

Perhaps the most serious problem about the big sorry is that it abstracts across time, retrojects our own values into a different period of history, and insidiously absolves us from understanding the material and ideological bases of the terrible wrong. The British government did not intervene in an Irish famine where a million people died because not acting accorded with contemporary laissez-faire economics, anti-Irish Catholic racism and Protestant beliefs in divine providence. Now, going on two centuries later, we have largely divested ourselves of divine providence (the least objectionable of these worldviews), but both a renewed, intensified form of laissez-faire economics and a changing form of structural racism continue, gently tempered by crisis management and liberal cosmopolitanism.

Refining the repertoire

How, then, does Scott Morrison fare? Across his time as prime minister his repertoire of non-apologies is creative and considerable. He does not use the ‘s’ word very often, but a year ago, and responding to criticism that eighty elderly people in residential aged care had died of COVID-19 that week, he did say sorry. One of the concerns being expressed at the time was that months into the crisis the federal government still did not have an aged-care COVID-response plan. Morrison expertly used the first form: ‘sorry, … but’. As described in the anthropology of gift-giving—one should not return with a parallel gift or re-gift too quickly—timing is critical. Expert non-apologisers know that allowing a little space between the initial apology and the later blame-shifting is important. Morrison certainly did that, but he added another refinement.

In this case, Morrison redoubled the subtle temporal delay by only implicitly blaming the other. As the public was invited to infer from the context of an ongoing series of criticism delivered more directly by one of his colleagues, the ‘real’ perpetrators remained unnamed and were implicated only by geographical association. ‘On the days that the system falls short, on the days that expectations are not met, I’m deeply sorry about that, of course I am’, Morrison said  (note in passing his use of both the passive-evasive apology concerning the system and a concealed sorry for your response apology). He continued:

So, there are the good days, but other days are not as good, and that’s the simple honesty that I’m offering to the Australian people… Of course, we, we’re sorry about that, of course we’re devastated by it… [temporal space] The outbreaks were caused by a community outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in Melbourne. That’s where the system received the greatest challenge. We can’t ignore that fact.

The ‘but’ thus came later in the form of an explanation that it was in effect Victoria’s fault, not the federal government’s. But also note what he was actually apologising for—not meeting expectations. Here, then, we have a hybrid non-sorry move. The two forms ‘sorry, … but’ and ‘sorry for your response’ are brought together in a subtle blinder that sounds good but does not entail remorse for actions done or not done.

This was similarly the case with his apology for going to Hawaii for a holiday in December 2019 while Australia experienced the worst bushfires in its history: ‘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’. In other words, ‘I am sorry for your response’. But here again, Morrison effected an elegant refinement of the classical form. Those to whom he was expressing sorry were reduced to a discrete group of directly crisis-affected people. What he certainly did not say was, ‘I’m sorry, people of Australia. These fires suggest that we the federal government should be doing more to mitigate climate change’.

Morrison’s 2018 national apology to Australian survivors and victims of child sexual abuse appeared to rely on yet another form of non-apology—the ‘grand apology without significant recourse’. The speech was poetic and compassionate. His words could not have been stronger: ‘A sorry from a nation that seeks to reach out in compassion into the darkness where you have lived for so long’. It had all the hallmarks of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 formal apology to the Stolen Generation, after which not much happened. Prime Minister Rudd’s words were equally strong: ‘for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry’.

However, to be fair here, Morrison has returned to the question in speeches on an annual basis since that apology. Time will tell, but it appears that Morrison has actually delivered on an apology that his predecessor, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, initiated before being deposed by Morrison, which was in turn based on the royal commission called by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Yes, most of the subsequent emphasis went into law enforcement—charges relating to child sexual abuse across the country have increased from 372 in 2018–19 to 2753 in 2020–21. It is possible that, rather than bad faith, what this last example shows is a failure of policy imagination, not a self-serving grand apology without significant recourse. Treating this issue as basically a legal and financial problem rather than a broader social issue is consistent with what the Morrison government does with all issues. The national redress scheme, for example, which for the first two years found itself caught in Kafka’s castle, has picked up momentum in 2020 and 2021. And funds have gone into online education programs to support families to prevent online abuse of children.

Here, in short, we ironically have a form of apology that Morrison does appear to take seriously. It is not even a case of absolving us from understanding the past (à la Blair), for we are in the middle of this crisis of child sexual abuse. However, to repeat words used earlier with a twist, this apology insidiously absolves us from understanding the material and subjective bases of the present. A law-and-order emphasis will achieve very little. The basic challenge that we face now is a cultural crisis in which using others (including for sexual gratification) has become a way of life.

The big general point here is that in contemporary social life, non-apologising (or with the last example, apologising without reflexivity) has become a political art form, while responding to wicked problems at the heart of our crisis is reduced to minor policy changes and some funding injections. At the same time, the ideological frame that Morrison espouses, neoliberalism with crisis-management qualifications, intensifies the old laissez-faire notion of sovereign individuals using each other to create our way of life. In other words, without rethinking the ideological frame, the child sexual abuse apology is still an apology without significant consequence. Like most of his apologies, it has become part of the art of negative politics without positive governance.

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About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

More articles by Paul James

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