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For Jay, 'sorry' seems to be the easiest word

Opinion

Apologies don’t cut the mustard. They are simply not good enough from those who lead us.

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Yesterday’s mea culpa from Premier Jay Weatherill was the latest in a long line in recent years.

“To anyone that suffered abuse at the hands of workers at Oakden, I am deeply sorry,” the Premier said.

“To their family members, to their careers, to their loved ones – I am deeply sorry.”

Of late, there has been plenty of sorrow, plenty of apologies – and plenty of scandals to prompt them.

We have a right to assume that election candidates are competent enough to become MPs. Presumably, each party chooses as leader the most competent of this competent bunch. Members of greatest competency are chosen as ministers.

There is a political mantra: “never complain, never explain, never apologise.”

It’s simple enough: you choose the job and if you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. A leader leads and because he or she inspires trust, explanations are unnecessary. Leaders are careful not to make mistakes. If they do and are exposed, then trust is lost. Consequently, don’t make a mistake so there is never the need to apologise or, having made one, cover it up.

“Never complain” make a lot of sense. “Never explain” doesn’t. A leader of the Lutheran Church once wisely advised me: “No shepherd can take the sheep further than they can travel in a single day.”

John Hewson never understood that – and he lost. John Howard did, and won.

God doesn’t need to explain. The rest of us do.

As to “never apologise”, ministers are entrusted with the community’s leadership, its wealth and our future. They have an obligation to make as few mistakes as possible. However, since the best-laid plans can go astray, sometimes an apology is required. When it is, it should be given freely, honestly and without reservation.

However, such apologies should be rarer than hen’s teeth because the competency of our leaders and the plethora of resources at their disposal should be our guarantee against mistakes.

When you’re regularly reading over your Weetbix that the Premier is apologising for this, then that, then something else, you’ve got a right to ask what the hell is going on? Has South Australia become some Mad Hatter’s Tea Party?

In baseball you get three strikes; in cricket, a single ball.

But in SA politics, the rule appears to be: you are permitted as many strikes against you as you can fit in between one election and the next. You ain’t ever out.

To be fair, some apologies are justified. Weatherill has apologised for grief caused by rules applying to death certificates, forced adoption practices and discrimination against homosexuals. They did not arise on his watch. He has moved to correct them. He deserves credit for that.

In 2008, as the minister responsible he apologised for past mistakes over children in state care. Since he inherited a mess, that was reasonable.

He inherited the extensive work contained in the Layton Report and the Mullighan inquiry to guide him.

That was a decade ago. Against advice, Weatherill demanded the creation of a ‘super department’ combining education with the state’s child protection agency. It was an unmitigated disaster. He disbanded it only when Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland rushed out an interim report because she thought the situation critical. Weatherill admitted his error and apologised.

Consider what happened while he kept insisting that his creation was the best thing since sliced bread.

As minister, his personal staff and department were involved in keeping information of criminal sexual abuse from the parents of potential victims. The Debelle inquiry resulted.

The ink was hardly dry on those findings when the case of Shannon McCoole came to light. The response, another Royal Commission.

It ended in the inevitable apology. But when that apology is measured against the lifelong trauma that some of those children might endure and this Government’s parsimony in releasing as little as possible of the millions that they have collected for victims of crime, is any apology enough?

And now we wade through the mire of elder abuse, ignored for years. Irreparable damage, to some of our most vulnerable citizens and their families.

As contrition, after supporting his disgraced minister as some sort of saviour? Another apology.

Manners have become the yardstick for government. No matter the cost to victims, their loved ones, or to the public purse, so long as the Premier has the manners to apologise, we are supposed to suck it up.

Maybe his elders taught once him a variation on a theme: “A sorry a day keeps electors at bay”?

Weatherill sits at the top of government, in a position shaped by Oliver Cromwell. Maybe it’s time Weatherill was reminded of Cromwell’s most famous admonishment, in a speech that heralded the end of political careers: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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