Australian Notes

Australian notes

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

Sorry to say this – but apologies by political figures seem to have become completely meaningless.

In a visit to Northern NSW in early March the Prime Minister apologised to flood figures, saying ‘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.  That’s why I do apologise’.

If ever there was an act of God that could not be predicted nor planned for, it was the torrent of rain that produced the floods in south eastern Queensland and northern NSW.  The notion of having to apologise for not being able to immediately restore everything to normal seems an extraordinary proposition.

Apologies now seem to be a regular duty for prime ministers and politicians generally. Earlier, in February, Scott Morrison apologised to staff members who had worked in the parliament over the years and been subjected to bullying and harassment. Having worked in the Old Parliament House in 1975 I was rather surprised to be the subject of an apology and, the more so, because I had never been bullied or harassed by anyone during that time.

Another general apology – on behalf of all Australians – was made by the Prime Minister in October 2018 to the victims of child sexual abuse over many decades. Everyone would naturally feel enormous sympathy for these victims, but it is important to note that the abuse was carried out by a relatively small group of individuals who administered government and private, particularly religious, institutions. The great majority of Australians had never engaged in this kind of conduct but the apology seemed to be premised on this and earlier generations being responsible for the activities of those who had committed serious crimes. These crimes were, of course, covered up by the institutions in question but this was again the conduct of a small number of administrators and it is hard to see how the Australian population generally could have any responsibility for this.

These last two apologies by the Prime Minister addressed matters of relatively recent history but the apology for events of ancient history has also been much in vogue in recent times. In March of this year, for example, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed the Scottish Parliament and apologised for the Witchcraft Act of 1563. This legislation made witchcraft or consulting with witches a capital offence and resulted in the execution of an estimated 2,500 persons, mostly women, over the next two centuries.  These were terrible times – like almost all times in human history – but it is difficult to see the utility of an apology to persons who have been dead in many cases for almost five hundred years by a government that was separated by nearly five centuries from the events which were the subject of the apology.

A mere three and a half centuries separated the apology by Pope John Paul II in 1992 for the Vatican’s trial of Galileo in 1633 for maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa.  Galileo spent the rest of his days under a form of house arrest but he might have considered himself very fortunate not to have been burnt in the public square – the fate of many of those accused of heresy at this time.

Almost two centuries ago in 1833 slavery was abolished by the British Parliament in almost all parts of the Empire but, when Prince William visited Jamaica in March on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of that country’s independence, he was confronted by demands from a number of Jamaican leaders for an apology, presumably by the Queen, in relation to the existence of slavery in Jamaica in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No doubt the current British government and almost all inhabitants of the British Isles would condemn the institution of slavery but it is nearly 200 years since it was tolerated by any British administration.

Long before admissions of historic guilt became fashionable, the drafting of apologies was something of an art form in the law of defamation. In addition to demands for financial damages, most persons who claim to have been defamed by a particular publication also ask for an apology conceding that the allegations made in the publication are false. Even if provided, these apologies are seldom effective for two reasons.  The first is that many of those who saw the original publication will not see the apology, particularly if, as is often the case, the allegations were made on the front page of a newspaper and the apology is in a small box on some internal page. The second reason is that apologies in this area seldom say straight out that the original allegations were false but rather say that the publication did not intend to make those allegations of misconduct – which both parties know it clearly did.

The apology is only provided, of course, to avoid litigation or to lessen the award of damages for which the defendant is liable if litigation proceeds and is successful. There is certainly nothing heartfelt about expressions of regret in the law of libel!

So even in the case of recent damaging allegations against individuals the value of apologies might be doubted. But, in the case of apologies by governments to whole classes of victims there seems little benefit in expressions of regret, particularly when the government itself has no responsibility for what has occurred.  And this is even more true when the events took place hundreds of years ago so that all the victims are long gone and the apologising government cannot have the slightest connection with these past instances of oppression.

The last word might be left to P.G. Wodehouse: ‘It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them’.

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