Apologies come thick and fast

00:00, Jul 07 2014

Last week seems to have been the week for apologies.

"My name is Lou Vincent and I am a cheat." That was how the former New Zealand cricketer opened his apology for match fixing. What followed was a frank, unqualified and humiliating admission of wrongdoing. He closed his statement by saying that he accepted his punishment and thanked the media for listening.

It was an honourable apology, even if it had come from a man who had done some very dishonourable things. Vincent can't undo his previous corruption, but at least he owned up to what he had done (however lately). Most people would credit him with that.

That credit does not appear to have been extended towards the other "sorry" of the week. This was the apology given by David Cunliffe on Friday. In contrast to Vincent's statement, Cunliffe was not expressing sorrow over something he actually had done. Instead, he said was sorry for being a male of the species.

In fairness to him, the statement was made in the context of a speech he was giving to Women's Refuge outlining Labour's domestic abuse policy. Cunliffe felt moved to apologise for his biological sex "because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children".

By all indications his remorse, and the rest of his speech, was fairly well received by the audience.


Reaction from others was not so positive. The apology - which was surely ad libbed - was soon posted on Fairfax Media's news website Stuff.co.nz.

There it quickly racked up nearly 500 reader comments, nearly all of which were negative, before administrators shut down the site's comment functionality. The reason the comment was so damaging for the Labour leader is that it plays into pre-existing negative perceptions about him. Principally, this is the view that he is oleaginous. This is what John Key was tapping into when he tweaked Cunliffe for being insincere in the remark.

Lest you think this is an example of a centre-Right columnist projecting his own views onto the public at large, consider the May poll where two of the traits respondents most associated with Cunliffe were "untrustworthy" and "shifty". As former TV commentator Bill Ralston noted at the time, he "always appears to be acting" and has a problem with apparent "inauthenticity".

Indeed, you really need to look no further than Matt McCarten, the Labour leader's own chief of staff. Prior to his appointment, McCarten had warned Labour not to select his now boss as its leader - comparing him to Mitt Romney in terms of phoniness.

This probably isn't really fair for Cunliffe. I am sure he is a good man, honest in his personal dealings and earnest about helping the country. He is struggling to get that across to voters, however, and this latest slipup won't help. Moreover, there is always something grating about politicians apologising for things for which nobody holds them responsible. These apologies are very different from the type offered by Lou Vincent.

The gold standard here is Tony Blair. As prime minister, he apologised for a great many things other people had done. This included a 2006 statement of sorrow and shame at Britain's legacy regarding slavery. This was despite the fact that any historically minded person could tell you that Britain's true legacy on the matter was its heroic efforts to abolish the previously universal institution of slavery - including in this country.

That was something Blair needed to concern himself with, however. As the Labour peer Baroness Amos said at the time, the statement was seen as a "status enhancing" apology. On the other hand, can you imagine the former prime minister ever offering fulsome contrition for something he actually was responsible for? What about his decision to invade Iraq in 2003? Or, if he doesn't really think that was a mistake, what about the post-war blunders that dashed the chances of an orderly reconstruction? That kind of apology would not be status enhancing. That is why you will almost certainly never hear it.

In the same way, there are other things David Cunliffe could be apologising for than the fact he happened to be born with a Y chromosome. Maybe he could apologise to the people of Hawke's Bay for his 2008 decision, as then minister of health, to sack their entire DHB while belittling its members on the floor of Parliament for being provincials.

Or if that is too big an ask, maybe he could settle for apologising to his colleagues for overshadowing the party's plans to tackle domestic violence with another gaffe.

Manawatu Standard