Editorial: Apologizing for political gains

There was much anger last month over a plan by the B.C. Liberals to use apologies for political gain. The plan, which was leaked before implementation, was aimed at garnering votes. It envisaged a provincewide canvass of ethnic groups to identify “historical wrongs,” followed by apologies in the legislature.

Of course, the whole thing backfired, and Premier Christy Clark expressed her regrets: An apology for planning to apologize.

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But while this was an unusually crass effort, apologies have become one of the black arts of modern politics. Sometimes they’re used as damage control, when remarks that were well-intended go wrong.

We saw an example of this two weeks ago, when U.S. President Barack Obama found himself in hot water. Speaking at a private fundraiser, Obama called a California official, Kamala Harris, “the best-looking attorney general in the country.”

There’s not much room for ambiguity here. The president obviously meant what he said. But a storm of controversy followed, and Obama hastily issued a public apology after calling Harris to express contrition.

Any number of politicians have followed the same well-worn path. Justin Trudeau, who’s contending for leadership of the federal Liberal party, told a Quebec interviewer that “Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda.”

Sounds clear enough. But as soon as his remarks reached a broader audience, Trudeau rushed out the obligatory retraction.

Not that this tactic is in any sense a recent invention. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV once stood barefoot in a snowbank for three days to apologize for kidnapping the pope.

That might seem like a long shot: Abducting the pontiff isn’t the sort of thing that happens by accident. Yet apparently it worked. Henry was formally excused.

And that is the whole purpose of damage-control apologies — to get out of a tight corner. Genuine remorse? No. Honest regret? Not likely. Making amends? Only if lying through your teeth counts.

That’s not to say all political apologies lack sincerity. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in Parliament to beg pardon for the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools, it was clear he was visibly moved. Some of those who had suffered abuse sat facing him in the House of Commons gallery.

Yet even here something is problematic. Apologies of this kind cost nothing to make. No one suggests that Harper or his government were implicated in the residential schools tragedy.

At least to an extent, this felt like a political preening session. The prime minister earned plaudits for himself by acknowledging the harm done by others.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau took this argument a step further, by refusing point-blank to support an apology to Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War. As he stated at the time, “I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we … were not a party.”

That might sound a little bloodless — an exercise in logic when compassion and warmth were called for. Yet there is an element of truth here.

Genuine apologies, by their nature, are supposed to express remorse. We realize the pain we’ve caused, and take it to heart.

Too often, the political variety lack any such quality. They’re meant to deflect criticism, not to absorb it.

There’s a better than even chance we’ll get to witness this strategy in the provincial election campaign that formally begins on Tuesday. With several hundred candidates contesting 85 ridings, the likelihood of foot-in-mouth occurrences is high.

When the inevitable regrets are offered, voters will have to judge for themselves: Is this honest repentance, or is it just a political apology?

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