John Howard has trouble saying sorry. He could not manage if for the Aboriginal stolen generation nor for the wrongly locked up Cornelia Rau. The lies told about the children overboard did not produce the magic word nor did the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But this week the Prime Minister did manage to use the word after the Reserve Bank put interest rates up:

I would say to the borrowers of Australia who are affected by this change that I am sorry about that and I regret the additional burden that will be put upon them as a result.

But don’t let anyone think that saying sorry is in any way an apology. As the front page of the Hobart Mercury so accurately put it yesterday: “Sorry … but it’s not my fault.”

Mr Howard went out of his way today to stress that just because he said he was sorry he was not apologising to anyone. In his dictionary the word does not imply such a thing at all:

I said I was sorry they occurred. I don’t think I used the word apology. I think there is a difference between the two things. I think we’ve been through that debate before in the context of something else.

I’m sorry when interest rates go up because it does impose a burden on people, I understand that.

But it’s also fair of me to point out that … a family in which, say, dad (works) full-time and mum (works) part-time got what, $20 a week out of the last budget in tax cuts? I think you’ve got to put that up against the impact of the interest rate rise.

So what does the word sorry mean when Mr Howard uses it? Perhaps the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language of Houghton Mifflin Company gives a clue.  

If Mr Howard is not “feeling or expressing remorse for misdeeds” then perhaps he had in mind that “the economic outlook is depressing.”

Whatever he thinks, the voters of Australia are sure to find his comments “a sorry excuse.”

Already, I notice, the comments on newspaper web pages are agreeing with the caption writer on news.com who said “Sorry performance … John Howard has denied apologising for rate rise.”

In the funny way of politics it is quite possible that more votes will be lost by the sorry that is not an apology than the event for which Mr Howard is sorry, but not apologetic, for.

Peter Fray

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