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Byron Shire
May 20, 2024

‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest political word

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In February last year, we were coping with a flood of water. February this year has brought a flood of political ‘sorries’, and, given the volume, it’s worth thinking about the role of the political apology – when it is acceptable, and when it doesn’t even begin to address the problems that demanded it.

When my Google search ‘MP sorry’ yielded 190 million hits, I tried to narrow it down a bit with ‘Premier sorry’. This was only slightly successful – still had 154 million hits.

Google really doesn’t help me trying to work out when the current sorrow storm started.

Premier Perrottet’s admission to, and apology for, wearing a Nazi uniform at his twenty-first birthday is probably the best place to start. It was agonising to watch – there was clear remorse, at least for getting himself into that situation. He acknowledged the seriousness, answered questions, and then visited the Jewish community – signifying that he recognised an apology to the public was insufficient.

The premier needed to front the victims and undertake a journey of atonement that seemed appropriate. It went a long way towards convincing the public he was genuine.

This contrasts with the political apologies that rained down this week:   

The NSW Minister for Finance, Damian Tudehope, apologised for making an ‘unknowing mistake’ (a curious phrase) by failing to recuse himself from Cabinet deliberations, where he had a personal financial interest.

He claimed to have acted with integrity and that an investigation into this ‘unknowing mistake’ had been vindicated by a legal opinion. But neither he, nor the premier, are willing to make public that opinion.

The obvious questions were muted even before they could be asked because the minister resigned anyway. 

There was an apology from Peter Dutton for his failure to apologise to the Stolen Generations 15 years ago, when he boycotted the event in protest. But it lacked any sense of purpose in terms of atonement – he seems hellbent on taking the same attitude towards the Voice.

Apologising for not apologising, while doing the same thing all over again is guaranteed to provoke cynicism. I cannot speak for First Nations Australians who have most at stake here, but as a citizen who wants to see these issues resolved, I just felt demoralised by how stupid he sounded, when what is needed here is intelligent and empathetic leadership.

A proper apology is rarely an end unto itself. For example, apologising to someone for forgetting their name confers an extra obligation to get their name right next time.

If you keep forgetting, then the word ‘sorry’ does not have any credibility. The first ‘sorry’ is fine – but you cannot ‘move forward’ (as they say) until the next chance you have to correctly remember the person’s name. Then everyone can be sure the ‘sorry’ was genuine and not merely perfunctory.

This brings us to the apology-of-the week that really did not work.

Liberal MP, Peter Poulos, was forced to admit to, and apologise for, emailing pornographic photos of a female colleague to undermine her chances of being selected for parliament.

His apology, which Liberals hoped would dead-bat the issue and save his career, was a mega-fail on every level.

The premier’s initial attempt to minimise the incident by saying, ‘This happened years ago’, ‘Peter is only human’ and ‘he has apologised’ suggested he did not understand the seriousness of what had happened.

Yet many in the community  believed a criminal offence had taken place, and could not understand why it was not in the hands of the police.

The answer, later given, is that ‘revenge porn’ laws refer to private photographs – the ones circulated by Mr Poulos related to a publication, and were not captured by those laws.

The next error by the NSW government was to organise the female victim of Mr Poulos’s poor behaviour to stand next to the premier and loyally agree ‘it’s in the past’, and insist she and Mr Poulos are now ‘good mates’. 

This strategy may have worked in the past – but the image of female victims being trotted out to defend their male attackers is no longer acceptable.

Nor was NSW Treasurer Matt Kean’s view that, ‘The Liberal Party will be looking at those issues, and what I’m sure they will do is take into account the views of the member for Hawkesbury, Robyn Preston.’

The problem is, modern workplace laws relieve the burden on victims to prosecute the case against perpetrators. It is the responsibility of everyone who witnesses such behaviour to do something about it.

This mirrors domestic violence laws, under which police can initiate action against perpetrators without relying on a complaint from traumatised/terrified victims.

The premier’s efforts to minimise the behaviour as ‘a mistake’ and excuse Mr Poulos as being ‘only human’ and someone who ‘apologised’ only served to trigger new questions about the premier’s own judgement.

By Saturday, with the Liberal Party in receipt of a fresh complaint, the premier finally shifted his view to ‘horrified and disgusted’.

He confirmed the true impact of Mr Poulos’s behaviour.

‘I’m obviously very close with Robyn Preston, she’s worked for me; we’ve been friends for a very long period of time, and I know the distress at that time that that caused her.’ 

Peter Poulos’s candidacy for the Liberals was cancelled. So now the Liberal Party can ‘move on’.

For a premier and treasurer, who are trying to position themselves as ‘champions for women’, this incident calls into question whether they even understand the problems they claim to be solving.

Let’s hope lessons have been learned.

♦ Catherine Cusack is a former NSW Liberal MLC.


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4 COMMENTS

  1. The Liberal Party / Perrottet, they want to “move on” from all their troubles.
    Not long to wait until March 25, their “move on’ wish will be delivered – ‘moveD on’ out of government.

  2. Why is someone in Sydney responsible for the extremely poor planning for floods in this area? People in the local area should take responsibility for the poor planning and not just in floods but in nearly every area of local government operations for many decades.

    Blaming someone in Sydney because people were surprised again because Lismore flood is not mature and rational decision making.

  3. Blame !! Common knowledge the predominantly
    Green council’s this past 2 decades in lismore
    Have alot to answer for.. !! Incidentally labor are not in opposition..the role out of buybacks in lismore and the surrounding areas has been
    Slow..one year on.. just Blame Morrison…
    Again …

  4. Nobody should say sorry except the idiots who CHOSE to build or buy on a floodplain. Then they expect the rest of the nation to bail them out.

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